Until about a year ago, health and fitness expert Bob Harper would have told you that for him, a heart attack was out of the question. “I’ve been in the health and fitness industry more than 25 years. When I found out I had a heart attack, it was baffling to me,” says Harper, 52, host of NBC’s former TV show The Biggest Loser. “I didn’t think it could happen to me because I’m the workout guy. I’m the fitness guy.”
Then came the morning of Feb. 12, 2017, one that Harper still can't remember. What he does recall is having dinner with friends the night before, then taking his dog Karl for a short walk before going to bed. He knows he had plans to meet one of those friends at a CrossFit gym in his New York City neighborhood the next morning — but he doesn’t remember anything about that day or the next. Where his memory picks up? Waking up in the hospital and being told that he’d had a near-fatal heart attack in the middle of his workout.
He’d had what’s often called a widow-maker heart attack, which occurs when the left anterior descending artery, one of the three main arteries that supply blood to the heart, is almost totally blocked. “His heart was so starved for blood and oxygen because of the blocked artery that he went into sudden cardiac arrest and basically died,” explains cardiologist, Warren J. Wexelman, M.D., a clinical instructor in the Department of Medicine at the New York University School of Medicine.
Fortunately for Harper, when he collapsed, a doctor who was working out at the gym administered CPR while someone else dialed 911. To restart his heartbeat, Harper had to be shocked three times by an automated external defibrillator (AED). “He doesn’t remember it because he was placed in a medically induced coma to give his heart a chance to rest,” Wexelman says. “Any regular person wouldn’t have recovered. Bob’s superior physical condition saved his life more than anything else.”
Looking back, Harper recognizes some warning signs, such as feeling dizzy — and once, even fainting — during his workouts over the course of about six weeks prior to his cardiac arrest. At one point, he went to see a doctor who recommended further tests — but Harper put them off. “I chose not to listen to my body as much as I should have,” Harper admits. “I didn’t think I was at risk for a heart attack.”