“It was a beautiful February day,” said Eck, 78.
But at about 1:30 p.m., Eck began to tire. And it had nothing to do with hoisting 12- to 18-pound fish into the boat.
“I didn’t have any pain, but I felt real weak,” he said. “I had a cramp under my right shoulder blade. I got white as a ghost. The rest of the guys on the boat had been heaving overboard because it was pretty rough. They were sick.”
Eck had spent enough time on the water in his life to know his symptoms indicated something much more serious than seasickness. The captain noticed his coloring and asked how he felt.
“I told him, ‘I think I’m having a heart attack,’” Eck said.
The captain motored back to shore.
“When we got in, it was my job to back the boat trailer in the water to get the boat out,” Eck said. “I started walking back to the truck. I had to stop halfway there and rest before I could go on. It was all I could do to back the trailer into the water.”
After loading the boat, the group headed to the emergency department. Staff put Eck on a gurney and immediately wheeled him to the catherization lab, where they discovered a blockage.
They inserted a stent.
“About 15 minutes later, I was in recovery and I felt great,” Eck said.
Two days later, he was discharged.
Life as he knew it resumed. He continued to walk 3-5 miles a day, enjoying jaunts over the Intracoastal Bridge near his winter home in Fort Pierce, Florida.
He continued fishing when he returned to his Bailey, Michigan, home. Almost every day, he drove to Grand Haven to fish off the north pier.
And all was well.
“I started getting out of breath after I walked about a quarter-mile,” Eck said. “I’d have to stop and rest and let my blood flow. Then I could go on and do the rest of my 2- or 3-mile walk.”
Eck’s Spectrum Health doctor ordered a stress test, which showed some irregularities in blood flow.
“They wanted me to get a catheterization right away,” Eck said. “They wouldn’t let me go home.”
Two days later, on April 27, 2016, cardiothoracic surgeon Dr. David Spurlock performed open heart surgery on Eck at Spectrum Health Fred and Lena Meijer Heart Center.
Eck felt great for the next 14 months.
“I still went to Florida that winter,” he said. “I was walking and fishing.”
And visiting Grand Haven’s north pier while in Michigan.
But last July, faster than a fish fin flips, fear returned.
“All of a sudden my symptoms were back again,” he said. “It was worse than it was when I had open heart surgery. I went in and had a stress test again. They scheduled me for a catheterization. The blood was swirling around and not going where it was supposed to go.”
Dr. David Wohns, a Spectrum Health Medical Group cardiologist, said major calcium buildup blocked Eck’s arteries, making them difficult to work on. Wohns used a Rotoblater, a high-speed diamond tip drill, to remove the calcium and place stents in severely blocked vessels where the bypasses closed.
Eck’s left ventricle, the major pumping chamber, worked at about half capacity.
“It made the procedure more difficult and hazardous, which is why we needed to place him on a temporary Impella pump to support and protect his heart and complete the procedure safely,” Wohns said.
Discharged from the hospital on Nov. 1, 2017, Eck went fishing the same day.
“He’s doing fantastic now,” Wohns said. “His symptoms are gone and he’s back to normal life and the life he wants to live — our goal for him. His active lifestyle, his positive mindset and his determination are all part of his great recovery.”
Eck’s heart is once again pursuing his passions — fishing and walking.
He fished the Grand Haven pier every day until he left for Florida in mid-December.
“I go out there any day that’s reasonable,” he said. “I start at daylight. I give most of the fish away, right on the pier. I don’t have any worries when I go fish on the pier. I feel like I did when I was 50 years old.”
This article first appeared on spectrumhealthbeat.org.