What Happens During a Heart Attack?

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S. Often, heart attacks occur without warning. Conventional medical interventions can be lifesaving in a crisis, but they do not actually prevent or reverse heart disease. Ultimately, for a healthy heart, we need to focus on our nutrition and lifestyle habits.

Sudden Death

Many people assume they will experience warning signs of heart disease such as chest pain, shortness of breath, sweating, and nausea. However, many people don’t experience any symptoms (or they ignore them). According to research, for the majority of people who experience a fatal heart attack, sudden death is their first and only symptom [Ref 1].

A Heart Attack Story

Many years ago, during my career as an anesthesiologist, one of my most memorable patients was a man in his 40’s who presented to the E.R. having a massive heart attack. Normally, the coronary arteries supply blood to the heart muscle. But during a heart attack, a coronary artery becomes blocked and a section of the heart muscle begins to die.

In this case, a cardiologist attempted an emergency angioplasty (procedure to unblock an artery) but the patient rapidly deteriorated during the procedure. At that point, an open heart surgery was the only thing that could potentially save his life.

I was upstairs in the surgery department when I got the call. Within minutes, I saw our nurses running down the hall toward the operating room (O.R.) with my patient on a gurney. Someone was giving him chest compressions and his skin had turned a deep blue. His heart was not pumping blood and he wasn’t breathing. He was unconscious with little to no blood flow to his brain.

The scene in the O.R. was orchestrated panic. I inserted a breathing tube and administered oxygen and medications for life support, but the heart wasn’t responding to anything! Nurses and surgical technicians scrambled to set up the surgical equipment. Thankfully, the cardiac surgeon and perfusionist wasted no time putting the patient on cardiopulmonary bypass (a machine that took over the function of the heart and lungs).

The mood in the O.R. was grim. We had no clue how things would turn out. How much brain damage would there be? Would he remain in a vegetative state for the rest of his life? Would he ever walk or talk? Nobody knew.

The surgeon took sections of a vein from the patient’s leg and tediously attached them to the heart, rerouting the blood around the clogged coronary arteries.  Those veins became coronary artery bypass grafts and the acronym for the operation is CABG. Thus the nickname for the surgery is “cabbage.”

After the grafts were done, we shocked the heart with a defibrillator and it miraculously responded by beating on its own.  The surgeon closed the patient’s chest with wires and staples, and we took the patient to the intensive care unit where he began emerging from anesthesia.  At first, he moved his arms and legs a little bit. Then he opened his eyes. I asked him to squeeze my hand and wiggle his toes and amazingly he did. Within a few hours, he fully recovered.

I’m not exaggerating when I say we thanked God!

Of course, we celebrated this incredible outcome. The cardiac surgeons ordered pizza and soda pop for everyone in the operating room department. By the way, this was when I had bad eating habits, so I was cool with that!

As the greasy food crept sluggishly through our arteries, the hospital food service made sure the patient wasn’t left out. When he came off the ventilator, the nurses served him a hamburger and a steady stream of high-cholesterol foods for the next several days.

The patient went home on a ton of medications and likely continued his artery-clogging diet.  The reality is these patients are rarely taught healthy eating and lifestyle habits that would prevent future heart attacks. They are simply told to anticipate the progression of their atherosclerosis and the need for cardiac stents and a “redo” bypass surgery at some point in their lives.

Imagine how different life would be if every patient had a nutritional plan allowing them to reverse their coronary artery disease–not a plan for a redo.

A Smarter Way

That story shows you that in an emergency, aggressive medical care is absolutely lifesaving, but sadly it does not address the root of the problem. Patients need to understand how the blood vessels clog in the first place. Coronary artery disease is always the result of our dietary and lifestyle choices.

Cholesterol (found in animal products) and processed sugars promote coronary artery disease. Studies on this subject show that cholesterol-lowering medications, high blood pressure pills, and procedures do NOT prevent future heart attacks or increase a person’s life span [Ref 2].

The smarter approach is for patients to quit smoking and make lifestyle changes that include optimal nutrition with whole, plant-based foods. Studies show this lifestyle approach can even reverse heart disease [Ref 3].

Most heart attacks are preventable and the key foods include fruit, greens, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains. If you commit to eating well, you’ll find nature’s “cabbage” is the only kind you’ll ever need.



Ref 1 Myerburg RJ, Junttila MJ. 2012. Sudden cardiac death caused by coronary heart disease. Circulation. 28;125(8):1043-52.
Ref 2 Boden WE, O’Rourke RA et al. Optimal medical therapy with or without PC! for stable coronary disease. N Eng J Med 2007; 356(15):1503-16.
Ref 3 Esselstyn CB. Is the present therapy for coronary artery disease the radical mastectomy of the twenty-first century? Am J Cardiol. 2010; 106(6):902-4.

By |2019-05-29T14:25:36-05:00February 4th, 2019|Recommendations & Thoughts|2 Comments

Get 8 SIMPLE STRATEGIES to help you take control of diabetes

Download the Guide and receive free wellness tips, offers, and insights via email. We collect, use and process your personal data in accordance with our Privacy Policy. You may opt out at any time.

About the Author:

Dr. Carla Hightower, MD, MBA is a certified integrative health coach, speaker, and corporate wellness consultant. She helps busy people develop healthier lifestyle habits and use plant-based nutrition so they can heal themselves. She provides educational information through her health coaching services and an online course on diabetes. In addition she is an engaging speaker on the subject of plant-based food and healthy lifestyle habits that improve health, energy and productivity. In her prior career she practiced anesthesiology for 21 years. In the midst of that career she overcame personal health challenges by adopting a plant-based lifestyle. Also, she observed that most of her patients were suffering from preventable complications of chronic lifestyle diseases. From those experiences she is motivated to teach people how to take full control of their health through better eating and lifestyle habits.


  1. Maureen Hackett, MD February 4, 2019 at 6:06 pm - Reply

    Dr. Carla Hightower knows what she writes and lives it too. I have known Dr. Hightower since medical school in Chicago. She has the utmost best interest of patients as her motivation to impart her knowledge of truly lifesaving choices of diet and activities. Thank you Dr. Carla Hightower for all that you do to move people onto a path toward true health and longevity.

    • Carla Hightower, MD February 4, 2019 at 8:06 pm - Reply

      Thank you, Dr. Hackett! Hearing this from you really means a lot. I am so glad that you reached out with words that truly inspire me and the readers. Since our days in medical school, it’s surprising that the health status of the population declined. But I am hopeful that our lifestyle habits can turn this around. Thank you for being part of the solution!

Leave A Comment