He was so busy that about two weeks before the event, he’d yet to write a letter seeking donations from family and friends.
The fact he wrote it from his hospital bed – fresh off bypass surgery – made his plea even more powerful.
For years, Craig seemed as healthy as could be. He didn’t smoke, maintained low cholesterol levels and kept active, playing racquetball and attending spin classes several times per week.
In his late 40s, things started to change. He tired more easily. His heart raced more – as much as 190 beats per minute – while exercising. He chalked it up to age, or the veracity of his workout.
Twice in late 2011, Craig found breathing difficult and went to an emergency room. Both times, tests showed no problems. Both times, he was sent home with a diagnosis of anxiety. He chalked it up to the stress of his work as a vice president for his family’s construction company.
“I’d drive through the night to get to a job site the next day,” Craig said. “Maybe I just needed to slow down.”
In February 2012, he and his wife took one of their two daughters to visit a college more than a six-hour drive away. The family was rushing to get there, eating fast food on the way. By the time they arrived, Craig again felt miserable and sent his daughter to take the tour while his wife stayed with him in the car.
“I thought it was indigestion,” he said. A few minutes later, he knew it wasn’t, prompting a call to 9-1-1.
Another round of tests came back normal. Again, the diagnosis was anxiety.
A few weeks later, Craig was helping his dad plant a tree and came home wiped out.
“I felt like I was 100 years old and called my doctor,” Craig said. “I told him, ‘This has to be something.’”
The doctor ended up recommending a stress test. Craig went to his regular spin class and played racquetball the day before and felt normal, although tired, so he thought the treadmill would be a breeze.
“I thought I was going to pass out,” he said.
He was rushed to a catheterization lab, where doctors found a 100 percent blockage of his left anterior descending artery. They tried installing a mesh-like tube called a stent to open the passage, but the location and blockage wouldn’t allow it. The next day, Craig underwent bypass surgery.
It was April 9 – one day before his wife’s birthday and two days before his 25th wedding anniversary, leaving him scrambling to postpone planned celebrations and the couple’s first cruise.
It also was 17 days before the Heart Walk.
Craig’s personal story helped make a difference. He was the top walker, raising $3,831, and the event generated $176,000, a 15 percent increase over the previous year.
“Everyone I know has said I was the last person they thought could ever have heart disease,” Craig said. “I should have gotten a bonus from all the local heart doctors because of all the people who went in to get checked because of me!”
Craig’s recovery included cardiac rehabilitation, where he learned more about his condition and changes he could make to help keep his heart healthy.
He still works long hours, but has made important changes to his diet – trading fast-foot meals for heart-healthy sandwiches and salads. He gave up his soda habit, which had grown to four or five a day, and began reading labels. He’s expanded his diet to include applesauce, yogurt and other nutritious items.
“I haven’t touched a salt shaker since then,” he said, adding that he also cut out a daily vegetable juice serving that accounted for one-third of his recommended allotment of sodium.
Now 52, Craig continues to be involved with the American Heart Association, volunteering on the committee for the Heart Walk and helping with the local Heart Ball and Go Red For Women events. This year’s Lincoln Heart Walk is on April 26.
As a survivor, he has an even greater appreciation for the American Heart Association, the nation’s oldest, largest voluntary organization devoted to fighting cardiovascular diseases and stroke, the nation’s No. 1 and No. 4 killers.
“To me, the message is, if you think something is wrong, keep trying to find the answer,” Craig said. “Even healthy people can have a heart issue.”
Photos courtesy of Craig Gies
Do you know a “Story from the Heart” we should tell?
Send an email to email@example.com that’s as brief or as detailed as you’d like.
Previous “Stories from the Heart” include: