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.”
In fact, he was at high risk for both heart attack and stroke, thanks to an inherited cholesterol abnormality — high lipoprotein(a), a particle in the blood that carries cholesterol, fat and proteins. What’s more, his mother had a heart attack and died at age 70, as did her father.
Harper spent eight days in the hospital, where he had two stents put in, embarked on a cardiac recovery program and began taking a regimen of medications (including a statin to lower his cholesterol and the blood thinner Brilinta to reduce his risk of having another heart attack). Approximately 20 percent of people 45 and older who have a heart attack will have a second one within five years of their first, according to the American Heart Association, so taking such preventive steps is crucial.
Once he went home, Harper grappled with his new reality, which included restrictions on his physical activities. He suffered severe anxiety and became depressed. “I didn’t know who I was if I wasn’t the guy in the gym,” he says. “I felt fragile and incomplete.” To help himself emotionally, he relied on support from friends and family members and his beloved dog Karl, and learned better stress management strategies.
“It’s been a challenging year, especially given what I’ve done for a living,” says Harper, coauthor of the new book The Super Carb Diet. “It was a slow process of building my relationship and trust with my heart again. I’m an ideal patient now; I’m doing exactly what my doctors tell me to do.” He has dialed back the intensity of his CrossFit workouts, does more yoga and walking in the city; having given up red meat, he now consumes more plant-based proteins and fish.
Along the way, he has learned to live with some level of uncertainty about his future health. “Being a heart attack survivor, I’m in a club I never thought I would be in,” he says. “I have tremendous gratitude for this second chance. I don’t take things for granted; I focus more on the here and now. Mindfulness is super-important to me. It keeps me calmer and helps me manage my stress.”
In recent months, Harper has been working on a program called Survivors Have Heart, sponsored by AstraZeneca, to help educate patients who have had a heart attack about the importance of working closely with their doctors and staying committed to the treatment and lifestyle plan they’re prescribed. “I have an opportunity now to help a whole new group of people,” he says. “Paying it forward is personal for me and I’m passionate about it.”