Capac’s Carol Nemecek shares story of survival, gratitude & love
TRI-CITY AREA — Carol Nemecek stands at the top of her yoga mat— palms pressed together at heart center—and pauses for a breath.
The 55-year-old Capac resident is dedicated to the practice of yoga. Linking movement with breath, taking time to inhale and exhale fully while stretching the body and opening the heart has become routine for the athletic mother of three.
Opening her heart and taking time to slow down aren’t passing fancies or fads for Carol. They’re necessities. Her very life depends on it.
It was a typical cold winter day on Sunday, January 31 in 2016. Carol, 52, her husband Joe and son Joey were in Port Huron, gearing up for a 5K race. The PoHo Hot Cocoa run is an annual fundraising event; its course winding through the historic downtown district and along the St. Clair River and offering a spectacular view of the Blue Water Bridge.
Carol was geared and layered up for the 5K—feeling good and looking good in her new outdoor running gear.
After the starting gun fired, Joey went off at his own pace. As always, Carol and Joe ran side by side.
About halfway through the race, Carol experienced something unusual.
“I had a pain,” she says. “An odd pain. It was about the size of a fifty cent piece right above my left breast. It came and went, but I knew it wasn’t a runner’s pain.”
She told Joe, who wasn’t immediately concerned. He suggested Carol peel off one of her layers, and advised that they should just walk for a while.
“Let me take your picture along the water,” he said. Joe clicked away. Carol removed a layer and carried on.
Wanting to complete the 5K, the couple began running again. Carol’s odd pain returned. A flash of insight crossed her mind and she decided to share it with Joe.
“I think I am having a heart attack,” she says.
Her husband—a Mussey Twp. Firefighter of some 32 years and a trained EMT—didn’t agree. His wife, petite and fit, just didn’t exhibit the typical symptoms of cardiac arrest. She wasn’t sweating, she wasn’t short of breath, she had no jaw, neck or shoulder pain. Her left arm wasn’t numb, nor was she experiencing pain there.
“Carol, no you’re not,” he says. “Sit down and I’ll go get the car, and we’ll go to the hospital.”
Carol did as she was told. She could see the hospital from where she sat—it was directly across the road. The pain came and went. As her husband neared with the vehicle, Carol stood up and was hit with a lightning bolt.
“Wham! My Arm!!!” she says. “I looked down at my manicured nails and the pain was so bad I was literally waiting and watching for my fingernails to blow off one by one. That’s how bad it was.”
Now she knew for sure what was happening. She had seen something just like this before, when she was just 11 years old and watched her 42-year-old father die of a heart attack.
Even though she knew exactly what was happening inside her body, she still couldn’t quite believe it. Her mind was racing.
“I’m only 52!” she thought. “A non-smoker, non-drinker and Weight Watcher-Lifer running a 5K!”
The thoughts continued.
“I’m not prepared for this. I have things to do today,” she says to herself. “And there’s our family vacation to the Keys in just five weeks! This cannot be happening!”
But it was.
Turns out, Carol wasn’t the only one who couldn’t believe it was happening. When she and Joe arrived at the hospital, emergency room personnel weren’t quick to assess the situation as cardiac arrest. With her hair nicely done and makeup on, Carol looked good despite what was going on. She did not look like the typical cardiac patient. However, once the medical professionals administered an EKG, it was clear that Carol’s life was at risk. There was no time to lose.
Alone in a room in the emergency department, Carol’s mind and body were at war. Pain began wracking through her entire chest, and she was certain she was going to die. Son Joey was watching through the window in the door, his big brown eyes filled with concern and fear.
“Oh God, please save me,” Carol thought. “I watched my dad die of a heart attack when I was 11. Please Lord, don’t let my son see this.”
After the EKG, a nurse told Joe and Joey to step aside, and then they asked them to call the rest of the family. They also asked what Carol’s religious preferences were.
Carol heard them call for a helicopter. She figured the end was near. She called her son over to her side and instructed him regarding what to tell his brothers Jake and Josh should she pass away.
Miracles do happen
Still in a panic, a new physician moved Carol to the cath lab. She remembers how cold it was. The doctor told her what they were going to do, explaining the procedure step by step.
“Carol, you just had a massive heart attack and I put a stent in your left anterior descending artery.”
She doesn’t remember the rest because at that moment she felt nothing but gratitude and relief. Her prayers were answered.
“I am alive!” she thought. “I am going to live. Thank you God. Thank you God.”
She woke up hours later in the ICU, husband Joe and sons Joey, Josh and Jake by her side. She felt like the luckiest person in the world. And then she felt the ‘old Carol’ rise.
“Now we can get down to business,” she said. “I need a phone charger, moisturizer, nice pajamas with a pocket for the monitor, and slippers or socks.” She reminded her family that they needed to go get something to eat, and asked that they tell no one that she’d had a heart attack. For some reason, she felt ashamed—like she’d done something wrong.
Soon enough, she got over it. Word got out and there was no turning back.
Throughout her hospital stay, Carol’s room was filled with visitors. Family, friends, and medical professionals she’d bonded with over the experience.
“Each, in their own way, said ‘do you know how lucky you are?’ but I didn’t think about it because now I was safe,” she says. “I felt like I was going to live forever. I was happy.”
Her new cardiologist came to visit every day, including his days off. He nicknamed Carol his “little runner.” And then he gave her the straight scoop.
“Carol, you need to change your ways. You are a very lucky lady,” he said. “You need to do yoga. Seriously, you need to find a way to calm down and learn to breathe and relax.”
Breath of Life
Though a bit incredulous initially, Carol knew she needed to heed the advice. And so she did. She began practicing yoga on a regular basis, and she felt herself change.
“Now I think before I react,” she says. “I am much calmer. When something happens, I do the yoga breathing and ask myself ‘Is this going to matter in a year,’ and go from there. The answer most times is ‘no.'”
Her family has also noticed the changes.
“Joe would say the old me would go from zero to sixty in thirty seconds,” she chuckles. “The new Carol says ‘okay, let’s think about this,’ before I act.”
A few weeks ago, Carol marked her third anniversary of being given a new lease on life. Along with her annual birthday celebration, Carol celebrates what she calls her ‘heart-iversary’ with gratitude.
She’s grateful to her husband Joe, and to her sons Jake, 29, Josh, 26, and Joey, 23. She’s grateful to the McLaren Port Huron medical professionals and to God for giving her the greatest gift—another chance. She feels particularly blessed that Dr. Sivaji Gundlapalli, Dr. Bashar Samman, and ER Dr. Christopher Roskopp were on her team.
Carol’s sense of humor remains intact, and she’s learned to find humor in even the most frustrating situations.
A longtime assistant librarian at the Capac Library, Carol loves her job, her community, and her life. She has shared her story at heart health events, including the American Heart Association’s annual ‘Go Red for Women’ February campaign. She was also featured on 18 billboards around the area, sponsored by McLaren Port Huron, where she received her treatment. She also returned to Port Huron to the Hot Cocoa run.
At the end of the day, Carol offers simple advice, and she hopes both women and men will take heed.
“Listen to your body,” she says. “Hug your kids, love your family, and never forget how lucky you are to be alive.”
Catherine Minolli is Managing Editor of the Tri-City Times. She began as a freelance writer with the Times in 1994. She enjoys the country life, including raising ducks and chickens.