Heart attack on the mountain: Team of heroes helps to save one of their own
February 26, 2018
On New Year's Day, Nevada City resident Don Attix was doing what he loved most. As a long-time member of the Sugar Bowl Ski Resort volunteer ski patrol, he had hiked up the final steps to a hut atop Mt. Lincoln to pick up equipment needed on a rescue. But when he arrived, something felt terribly wrong.
Attix was experiencing severe pain in his chest. He began sweating. A well-trained colleague quickly surveyed the situation and said, "You're having a heart attack."
In mere seconds, Attix was given two aspirin and placed in a sled. "They got me down the mountain and to the ambulance within ten minutes," Attix shared proudly, "just like we're trained to do."
Attix's heart stopped for the first time while in an ambulance heading to Tahoe Forest Hospital. His heart would stop once again on the helicopter from Tahoe Forest to St. Mary's Hospital in Reno.
Paramedics kept Attix alive with CPR. When he arrived in Reno, he was unconscious and doctors immediately placed him in an induced coma.
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Attix's wife, Karen, explains the wrenching experience. "At first I couldn't believe it. But when your husband is in ICU after a major heart attack, you don't think about the past or the future, you're thrown into the present."
Don remained in a coma for eight days before doctors felt he was strong enough to be taken off the ventilator. His doctor would later say that the survival rate for this type of heart attack was less than 5 percent. During this time, Don's family sat by him. "Watching the numbers, watching him breathe," Karen said.
Beyond anyone's expectations, Don began to get better. During his stay, he received a stent in one of his coronary arteries to help hold the artery open. Sixteen days after he was admitted, he and Karen returned home to slowly reenter their former life.
At 71, Don and Karen have always been extremely social, physically active, and healthy. They will be married 50 years this June. They eat well, travel often, and spend much of their time riding bikes, kayaking, hiking, and of course, skiing. "I skied every month for the 15 months prior to my heart attack," Don said.
Today, Don is on the road to recovery. He isn't back on the slopes yet, but he is taking strides to get there by attending Cardiac Rehabilitation classes three days per week at Dignity Health Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital (SNMH).
"Cardiac Rehab has really been a savior for me – for both of us," shared Don. "After the heart attack, I was feeling like I was a breakable object. Karen worried about me walking up the driveway."
Now, Don has begun exercising on stair climbers, treadmills and recumbent bikes during class. According to Katy Ellis, SNMH Director of Cardiac Rehabilitation, Don's heart rhythm, blood pressure and breathing are all monitored using specialized equipment.
"It's our goal to guide Don back to doing all of the physical activities he enjoys, including mountain biking and skiing. He is an inspiration," said Ellis.
"They are giving me permission to start my life again," Don concurred.
Though he's happy to be exercising, Don is most pleased to begin taking care of his grandkids again once a week in Truckee. "I think the grandkids are what pulled him through," shared Karen.
Don is also coming to terms with the emotional effects of his heart attack. "How do I deal with the gift I've been given and what will I do with this part of my life? After going so close to that cliff, things like the washing machine breaking down don't mean so much."
The jovial Don recently made a trip to Sugar Bowl Ski Resort to thank those who saved his life. "My job up there is to rescue – I've responded to emergencies all over the world. So to be rescued was really emotional. It completed the circle for me," said Don.
Of course, Don hopes to be on the slopes again soon, and anyone who knows him, knows that he will be. He's got the heart for it.