COLFAX — A snow storm on Feb. 17, 2014, turned into Bob Barnes' worst nightmare.
But ultimately, the events of that night led the Colfax man to turn around his life, meaning his experiences of the past year contain lessons for the rest of us.
Barnes suffered a heart attack after overexerting himself shoveling snow. While he has largely recovered, his recovery hasn't been easy, so he is eager to share what he's learned.
"I don't wish this on anybody," Barnes said, sitting with his wife, Kathy, beside him in their Colfax home during the evening of Jan. 12. Appropriately, it was a day when many Central Illinoisans were shoveling snow and salting sidewalks and roads after a night of freezing rain followed by snow.
"The doctors and nurses have been fantastic. But I would rather have met them under other circumstances," he said with a smile.
Barnes, 54, is an operations manager at Caterpillar Inc. in Pontiac. Kathy, 47, is an executive secretary at State Farm in Bloomington. They have three adult children.
"Our family is really close," Barnes said. "I wasn't really ever sick before the heart attack."
Actually, it was Kathy who had a heart attack first, on July 18, 2011. "It's hereditary in my family," she said.
Her artery was opened, a stent was placed to keep it open and she takes medication for high blood pressure and high cholesterol as well as a daily aspirin.
"I feel good," she said. "But it's a struggle for both of us to lose weight."
Last Feb. 17, Barnes ate dinner after work and then went out to shovel the snow.
"It was a wet, heavy snow," he recalled. He worked for 45 minutes.
About 20 minutes after returning indoors, both arms and shoulders began to cramp. He took a couple of Tylenol and tried to relax. Kathy asked whether she should call 911 and he declined because he didn't have chest pain.
He went to bed. But as soon as he tried to lie down, the pain intensified and went up into his jaw.
"I said, 'Do I need to call 911?'" Kathy recalled. "He said 'Yes.' I knew it had to be really bad."
An ambulance crew hooked Barnes to an EKG (electrocardiogram), started an intravenous line and gave him a nitroglycerin pill. A snowplow driver cleared the road for the ambulance for its trip to OSF St. Joseph Medical Center, Bloomington.
"I was really scared," Barnes said. "I wasn't willing to admit that I was having a heart attack."
He was taken straight to the St. Joseph catheterization lab, where he was met by Dr. Yogesh Agarwal, OSF cardiologist with HeartCare Midwest.
Agarwal knew from the EKG results that Barnes was having a heart attack. By then, Barnes was having chest pain and difficulty breathing.
But isn't arm cramping an unusual heart attack symptom?
"It is somewhat unusual," Agarwal said. "I have seen all sorts of symptoms over the years. I always tell people that there is a sense of uneasiness when you're having a heart attack. People know that something is wrong. But, sooner or later, it moves to the chest.
"It was a good thing they called 911."
Agarwal determined that one artery was completely blocked and two others were narrowed. He opened the blocked artery and inserted a stent.
Then he prescribed medication for Barnes to reduce the risk of a second heart attack.
"We treated the culprit (the blocked artery)" and then stepped back to see how the narrowed arteries would respond to medicine, the cardiologist said.
Barnes returned home after three days and returned to work after a month. But he still had discomfort in his arms, shoulders and neck, and chest heaviness.
In early April, he was short of breath and went to the St. Joe emergency department. Doctors found that one main artery and three branches were blocked and concluded that bypassing the arteries — rather than trying to open and stent them — would be the best treatment, Agarwal said.
"I wasn't happy," Barnes recalled. "I said 'no.' I wasn't convinced that I needed it and I knew that (with heart bypass surgery), I wouldn't be able to take care of my family for awhile.
"But my wife and kids convinced me," Barnes said. "They said that they wanted me around for a long time."
Cardiovascular surgeon Brad Smith performed quadruple bypass heart surgery on April 4.
Barnes came home four days later and slowly regained his strength. He began going to cardiac rehabilitation at St. Joseph three times a week and returned to work June 12.
But Barnes had to change his approach to work. Stress may have been a factor leading to his heart attack.
"I was a workaholic," he admitted. "I enjoyed working. It wasn't Caterpillar. It was me."
His bosses responded by keeping an eye on him and getting him assistance. Barnes responded by accepting the help and learning not to allow work-related stress to bother him.
"I'm able to leave work at work," he said.
How is he able to do that?
"I just think about my family," he said.
Another factor leading to Barnes' heart attack was low HDL (the good cholesterol) because he was overweight, had an unhealthy diet and was fairly sedentary, Agarwal said.
Barnes has responded.
He and Kathy exercise for at least 30 minutes three evenings a week. They have a treadmill and elliptical trainer at home and each of them spends 15 minutes on each machine.
Barnes bought a bike in August, went for rides with his son in late summer, and looks forward to getting back on his bike this summer.
He and Kathy also changed their diet. They eat less fatty foods, Barnes now takes his lunch to work and they eat a lot of chicken, fish and salad. He's also replaced soda with water and green tea.
Their progress hasn't been constant. They admit to cutting back on exercise and slipping on their healthy eating when they were on the road a lot last fall.
Barnes also admits to being anxious when he experiences discomfort.
"Any pain you have, you worry about it," Kathy explained. "The hardest part of recovery is the mental part."
Barnes' inconsistent progress and anxiety are common among heart patients, Agarwal observed.
"We don't pay attention to our health for years because we don't think anything bad will happen and, when it does, we become overly cautious," Agarwal said. "Suddenly, the future seems uncertain. And when there's discomfort, we wonder, 'Is it anxiety or is something actually happening?'"
The good news is that, in recent weeks, the couple has returned to regular healthy eating and exercise, Barnes has returned to cardiac rehabilitation and his anxiety has dissipated.
"He's turned the corner on the mental part," Kathy said. "The holidays and the kids coming home helped a lot."
People can recover from heart disease over time but it takes lifestyle changes, medicine and counseling, Agarwal said.
"We're a work in progress but we're trying," Kathy said.
"I feel really good," Barnes said.
Along the way, he has learned a few things.
"People need to be aware of their bodies," he advised. If you're shoveling snow and don't feel well, stop.
"We bought a snow blower and let our nephew or our sons do it," he said.
More importantly, Barnes knows what's most important.
He looked to Kathy and they held hands. A few feet away was a hallway filled with family photographs.
"I've learned that, no matter how busy life gets, don't take each other for granted."