A heart attack at age 36?

July 26, 2019
Dominique and Alicia Waithe-Cunningham share a tender moment
Dominique and Alicia Waithe-Cunningham share a tender moment. Dominique suffered a heart attack at the age of 36. Photos by Mark Reis.

Dominique Waithe-Cunningham, a young Air Force Tech Sergeant stationed at the Air Force Academy, had just finished his annual PT test on June 6.

He had completed 48 pushups within a minute’s time and 47 sit-ups a minute, better than he had done in previous years. He was in terrific shape and the impressive finish on pushups and sit-ups gave him confidence for the 1.5-mile run.

He ran the course and did well, but he began to feel pressure in his chest. He attributed it to Colorado’s high altitude and drove home, but he didn’t feel like himself. Overheated and sweating profusely, Dominique decided to take a shower to cool off. He knew something was wrong and sent a text to his wife.

A few minutes later, Dominique’s son, Christian Waithe-Cunningham, 16, received a text from his mother, Alicia, which he thought was a bit odd. “Go check on your father,’’ it read.

Christian ran up the stairs of their home and found his 36-year-old father on the floor.

“He’s talking and what not; he is just kind of out of it a lot. He’s sweating and he’s struggling. He says he needs to go the hospital,’’ Christian recalled. He ran downstairs and asked his cousin to drive them to the hospital. The two helped Dominique into the back of the car and rushed to UCHealth Memorial Hospital North. Dominique was having trouble breathing and could muster only a few words: “Are we almost there? Are we almost there?’’

Memorial Hospital North

At the hospital, Dominique was placed in a wheelchair and rushed to a treatment room where he was quickly evaluated by the Emergency staff and an EKG was performed. Minutes later the EKG came through on the paging system of Dr. Christopher Manhart, the interventional cardiologist. The EKG clearly showed a complete occlusion of the left anterior descending artery consistent with an acute anterior wall myocardial infarction. Without emergency intervention, a blockage in the LAD can be fatal, earning it the “widowmaker’’ moniker.

In the emergency room, Dominique’s heart went into a deadly rhythm known as ventricular tachycardia.

Dominique Waithe-Cunningham and his son, Christian, share a moment together
Christian Waithe-Cunningham played an instrumental role in saving the life of his father, Dominique Waithe-Cunningham, who had a heart attack after an annual PT test.

“So, he went cold,’’ Christian said of his father. “They had like six or seven doctors in there. And they opened the door because I was about to be let back in and me and my cousin were out there and then the beeper on the machine went off. And they closed the door and did whatever they do behind those doors.

“That messed me up because he went cold or whatever you call it. It was weird because I was thinking, ‘What would I do without my dad?’’’

A heart attack?

Staff and physicians at Memorial Hospital North performed CPR and defibrillation and were able to resuscitate Dominique. He’s had a heart attack. Within minutes, they wheeled him into a cardiac catheterization lab. Dr. Manhart had identified by the angiogram that plaque build-up inside the artery ruptured and a blood clot stuck to the plaque, restricting blood flow. With a series of balloons and a stent, the blockage was treated and normal flow was restored to the coronary artery. “We had a lot of fast-moving parts. We had a lot of people in and out of the room. We went right up with the catheter and got that vessel open to restore blood flow,’’ Dr. Manhart recalled.

Almost immediately after a stent was inserted into Dominique’s artery, he felt better.

“Having a heart attack never crossed my mind,’’ Dominique said. “I’m too young. I had been working out, I had been running on the exact same track and I felt great.’’

Dominique and Alicia Waithe-Cunningham July 21, 2019 with their sons Cameron, 10, and Christian, 16. Photo by Mark Reis.

In the ICU, Dominique was up and talking soon after the stent procedure. “The nurses were like, ‘You know what happened, right?’ And I said, ‘yes. I’m grateful. I can breathe; I can talk. I made it. And after finding out what happened on the way to the operating table, I can be nothing but appreciative and grateful. It was an experience that I wish I didn’t have to go through, but I’m grateful for the staff,’’ Dominique said. “They clearly saved my life.’’

In retrospect

Looking back, Dominique knows that he should have dialed 911 when he began to feel pain in his chest. He should have taken an ambulance to the hospital. Perhaps he should have stopped running during his PT test when he felt pressure in his chest.

“In the future, I’ll be listening to everything that my body tells me, everything that is not normal,’’ he said. He said he will be less stubborn about going to the doctor. “Your pride can have consequences. I felt it before I got in the shower. I know I am not what you would think of if you thought of someone who would have a heart attack. Go get checked out. Don’t let your pride make you suffer the ultimate consequence for no good reason. It’s not worth it. It’s not,’’ he said.

Dr. Chris Manhart
Dr. Chris Manhart

Alicia, Dominique’s wife, said she’ll always be grateful that her husband was close to the hospital and that her son got him to Memorial North safely. “It’s surreal. I definitely value our marriage more. I worry. I want to make sure he has his medicine and he’s doing alright, and I’m checking on him,’’ she said. “We are very grateful for everyone who has been so supportive. His job was amazing. The day it happened, they put a meal train in place and they brought us meals every single day.’’

Christian and his little brother, Cameron, still have their dad. “I appreciate him more,’’ Christian said. “I try not to get on his nerves as much, but kids are kids. I try to leave him alone maybe a little more at night, and not raise his blood pressure so much. I appreciate him more now.’’

Cholesterol, genetics and high blood pressure

Manhart, who works at the UCHealth Heart Center – Memorial Hospital North,  said cholesterol, genetics and high blood pressure play significant roles in heart disease. In Dominique’s case, the blockage may not have shown up on a stress test or EKG.

“That’s where the foundation for cardiovascular disease treatment starts with a good diet, exercise, a healthy weight, blood pressure control and cholesterol control,’’ Dr. Manhart said.

Only a week after the heart attack, Dominique turned 37. A few days later, the family celebrated Father’s Day. “Usually, it’s not that big of a deal. It’s not even a holiday and I don’t want anybody to make a big deal about it. But this Father’s Day, just the fact that I’m here, it was better than anything, just being here. “I appreciated being a father more than any other year. I don’t take it for granted, and I personally think that I have been doing a good job. Knowing how close I was to not being here, it’s put everything into perspective – my whole outlook on everything. I was gone,’’ he said.

About the author

Erin Emery is editor of UCHealth Today, a hub for medical news, inspiring patient stories and tips for healthy living. Erin spent years as a reporter for The Denver Post, Colorado Springs Gazette and Colorado Springs Sun. She was part of a team of Denver Post reporters who won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news reporting.

Erin joined UCHealth in 2008, and she is awed by the strength of patients and their stories.