Strokes, heart attacks can take toll on people regardless of age or health

By Eric PilgrimFebruary 20, 2024

Strokes and heart attacks take toll on people regardless of age or health
John Campbell sits at his desk as the Community Relations officer at Fort Knox Public Affairs in mid-February 2024 shortly before taking terminal leave to retire in March. Campbell served in the U.S. Army for 23 years, retiring as a first sergeant, then at Fort Knox as a civilian employee an additional 17 years. (Photo Credit: Eric Pilgrim, Fort Knox News) VIEW ORIGINAL

FORT KNOX, Ky. — John Campbell insisted he was fine; a buddy of his wasn’t buying it.

The former Community Relations officer at Fort Knox Public Affairs had visited a local hangout of his for a little bit on Dec. 20, 2023 before deciding it was time to go home.

“A buddy saw me sort of staggering around and said, ‘Dude, I can’t let you drive home.’  Campbell eventually relented and was driven home by his friend.

The next morning, Campbell was expected to meet up with one of his twin daughters for breakfast at a restaurant in nearby Brandenburg. When he didn’t show 10 minutes prior to the meeting time, she knew something was wrong and called her father.

“Evidently when I got into my house the night before, I fell into the Christmas tree, which is right by my bedroom door,” said Campbell. “I got myself up and made it to bed but that next morning when my daughter called, I told her I couldn’t find my keys, so she came and got me.”

When she saw him, Campbell said she urged him to go to the hospital. Campbell later found out he had had a stroke.

Cardiovascular disease remains the leading cause of death in the United States, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Heart Association. In just the year 2020 the disease claimed 928,741 lives, accounting for 41.2% of all deaths.

On that list, strokes ranked fifth at 17.3%, accounting for 162,890 deaths in the United States. Statistics bear out that women suffer from strokes more than men. And how strokes affect men and women differ greatly from person to person.

Campbell said he felt no symptoms leading up to the night of Dec. 20.

Even after falling into his Christmas tree and losing his keys beneath it, he didn’t register that something was wrong. It wasn’t until his daughter saw him the next day and called her mom – a nurse – to urge him to go to the hospital, that Campbell realized there was something seriously wrong.

“It was a quick onset of facial droopiness,” said Campbell. “I couldn’t drink my soda because my lips were droopy.”

Campbell ended up in intensive care for about three days and then had to undergo therapy afterward to get his speech back. He said he was able to get everything back over a short period of time, even feeling better after the stroke than he had before it.

Strokes and heart attacks take toll on people regardless of age or health
R.J. Dyrdek, Energy Program manager at Fort Knox Directorate of Public Works, sits at his desk Feb. 20, 2024. He is often considered a walking miracle by friends and family members after surviving a widowmaker heart attack in 2015. (Photo Credit: Eric Pilgrim, Fort Knox News) VIEW ORIGINAL

In 2015, R.J. Dyrdek faced another side of heart disease – a heart attack.

At 55 years old, the Energy Program manager at Directorate of Public Works had excellent blood pressure and cholesterol numbers. He had never smoked, he visited the Army Wellness Center on a regular basis, lifted weights religiously and didn’t take medicines for any length of time: “I don’t like the side effects.”

Yet, on Aug. 4, everything changed.

Dyrdek remembered it being a Friday. He had gotten off work and went to the gym – “like I always do.”

“Before I could really get into anything, I got a small sized, very sharp pain in the center of my chest,” said Dyrdek; “almost like a knife blade size stabbing feeling, dead center in the middle of my chest.”

The pain forced him to stop his workout and sit down for a while. He pressed his fingers hard on the area for about 15 minutes, when the pain suddenly stopped.

“I called my wife and told her I was skipping the rest of my workout and would be home earlier than usual,” he said. “She got all concerned. I had never done that before – cut a workout short.”

Dyrdek said he assumed it was just heartburn and told his wife as much when he arrived home. Problem is, he had never had heartburn before, and he regularly enjoys spicy foods. So he took an antacid and lounged around for the rest of the evening with no issues.

The next day, however, that sharp pain returned three times, and once again on the Sunday before leaving for church. More antacid tablets, more subsiding of pain.

Until Monday morning.

As Dyrdek buttoned up his dress shirt and was tying the knot on his tie for a big day at the office, the pain returned, along with something else.

“This time my wife said I was white as a ghost, and I had sweated through that dress shirt like I had been in the gym for hours,” said Dyrdek. “I was soaked.”

Strokes and heart attacks take toll on people regardless of age or health
When doctors analyzed Dyrdek’s heart, they discovered that although his arterial system was clean, there was one blockage at over 95% causing all the problems. He now wears a stint to keep the area clear. (Photo Credit: Courtesy of R.J. Dyrdek) VIEW ORIGINAL

Data analysis from Cedars-Sinai in 2022 found that heart attack deaths have risen since COVID-19. They have also risen across all age groups, most significantly among those ages 25-44.

In a 10-year study by the CDC from April 1, 2012 to March 30, 2022, researchers attribute 1,522,699 deaths to heart attacks.

By the time Dyrdek had reached the doctor’s office in Elizabethtown later Monday morning, he had suffered six heart attacks: the last occurring while he sat in the physician assistant’s office. When she connected him to an EKG to check his heart, Dyrdek said her eyes grow huge and she immediately called for an ambulance.

Yet even as medics wheeled him into the emergency room, Dyrdek continued to insist he just needed more antacid tablets.

Both men now admit that statistically they are incredibly fortunate; both could have died instantly. Both are doing well today, thankful to still be alive. Both now offer sobering advice to others.

“Don’t be hard-headed when people are pointing out the obvious to you,” said Campbell. “I was being hard-headed. I was like, ‘Leave me alone. Everything is fine.’ Well, everything wasn’t fine.”

Dyrdek has a slightly different perspective.

“Don’t assume you are fine just because your overall cholesterol number is good. If you don’t get into that ratio, good cholesterol versus bad cholesterol, it doesn’t matter,” said Dyrdek. “I was extremely fit. Thursday night I ran six miles. Friday night I had a heart attack.

“Heart attacks can happen to anybody at any time; get checked out – take it serious.”