Runner Returns to Racing After Having a Heart Attack

Scripps helps John Spangler get back on his feet after heart surgery

When 47-year-old John Spangler arrived in the emergency department at Scripps Memorial Hospital Encinitas, he looked and smelled like he had just run a marathon. That’s because he had.

“I was sweaty and smelly, but it didn’t matter,” says John. “I told them I was having this weird feeling in my chest and, literally, within seconds, they hooked me up to an EKG. Five minutes after that, a doctor comes in and says, ‘Mr. Spangler, we believe you’re having a heart attack.’”

Expert coordination and communication for treatment

When it comes to the treatment of heart attacks, time is very important. The less time that elapses between diagnosis and treatment, the less likely the heart will be damaged. Emergency departments need to have everything in place to fast-track the process.

“We have special paging systems to contact cardiologists and other staff simultaneously, and we’ve developed standard protocols that include required medications and patient preparation,” says emergency physician James Garvey, MD.

“We also provide tools for county emergency medical services so they can transmit EKG data from the field and we can prepare equipment and staff before patients arrive. John’s heart attack wasn’t considered major, but nothing involving the heart can ever be considered minor.”

Scripps emergency team at work

The emergency team quickly prepped John for an angiogram, a procedure where surgeons go through the femoral artery in the groin, inject dye and look for blockages in and around the heart. The angiogram showed a fresh thrombus blocking John’s right coronary artery.

Doctors were able to clear the vessel and insert a stent — a tiny, reinforced metal mesh tube that strengthens the blood vessel and keeps it from reclosing.

“I had a hard time running the last five miles, but I just figured it was normal to start hurting,” says John. “My wife, Stacey, was driving me home when I started getting this strange heartburn that went from one arm to the next. All I really wanted to do was shower and get something to eat but, luckily, we decided to stop.”

Post-surgery, continuing an active and healthy lifestyle

Only a month after his surgery, John was back to running short distances. A year later, he ran the Rock & Roll Marathon again, placing in the top 28 percent overall. Now he plans to run the New York City Marathon. John has been lacing his running shoes since he was 17 and it’s an important part of his life.

“I’ve been running for more than 30 years and I’ve been a vegetarian for decades,” he says. “I’m one of those people you would least expect to have a heart attack. Still, there I was, finishing a marathon one minute and in heart surgery the next.

“I’m glad we caught it quickly because there’s been no damage to my heart muscle,” he adds. “Running is part of who I am, and it looks like I’ll be doing it for a long time to come.”

Watch a video

John talks about how the care he received at Scripps Memorial Hospital Encinitas got him back on his feet so quickly.