When 61-year-old Gregg Watkins hopped on the exercise bike one evening in September for his regular workout, he was just focused on powering through it. Minutes later, his chest was on fire.

“It was as if a flaming mountain had fallen out of the sky and struck me in the chest point first,” he recalled, clutching his chest at the memory. “The pain was unbearable.”

As a kidney transplant recipient, Watkins exercised daily at the Planet Fitness in Matthews, halfway between his office and his home in Charlotte. There were no warning signs leading up to his heart attack, just immediate, insurmountable pain and a sense of urgency.

Without missing a beat, Watkins rushed out of the gym and got in his car. Calling an ambulance never crossed his mind. In hindsight, he realizes he should have called 911.

“Driving to the hospital, I knew I was going to die,” he said. “I called out to the Lord for help, hoping this wasn’t really going to be the end for me.”

He’d never make it to the hospital closest to his house, which was nearly 20 minutes away in the city. Luckily, Novant Health Matthews Medical Center was just a few minutes away. He texted his wife, Anne, “Massive chest pain. Going to the hospital.”

Racing through the streets and past the church where Anne and their 23-year-old son were attending a service, Watkins said one last prayer and stumbled to the emergency room entrance.

“I think I’m having a heart attack!” he exclaimed.

A life-saving procedure

Dr. Khawar Shaikh

“When we received Mr. Watkins in the emergency room, his heart was rapidly failing leading to a state of shock,” said Dr. Khawar Shaikh, an interventional cardiologist at Matthews Medical Center. “For every 10 patients we see in this condition, six or seven of them will die.”

Watkins’ heart was beating rapidly and irregularly, creating a life-threatening medical emergency known as ventricular fibrillation (V-fib). When a patient is in V-fib, their heart pumps little or no blood to the body, resulting in cardiac arrest, loss of consciousness and no pulse. It is fatal if not treated within a few minutes.

As his wife and son pulled up to the emergency room, he was fading fast. “Mr. Watkins – you’re having a massive heart attack,” he remembers hearing. “We’re going to do everything we can.”

The cardiac catheterization labs for heart procedures at Matthews Medical Center are equipped much like hospitals you’d find in the big city heart center – a rarity for a small community hospital. With three full-time interventional cardiologists who perform both coronary and vascular procedures, the hospital is a safe place to land if you’re having a cardiac emergency.

Watkins had a total blockage in one of his heart’s main arteries, meaning no blood was getting to his heart. Often, this can lead to cardiac arrest and shock with cascading organ failure and could cause permanent brain damage or death.

Watkins was the perfect candidate for a new device called Impella, which sits in the heart chamber and pumps blood throughout the body. It could mean the difference between life and death for patients whose hearts are weak and unable to pump after a heart attack.

Watkins’ heart had lost 75 percent of its function. At this point, Shaikh knew the device was his best hope. His heart couldn’t have handled the load on its own and with the help of Impella, it wouldn’t have to.

Not long after the device was implanted and he was taken to the cardiac critical care unit, his heart began to recover. Anne, his wife, joked that he looked like he was on vacation sitting up in his hospital bed, as if nothing had happened.

“People in Gregg’s state often do not make a quick recovery,” Shaikh said. “He barely had any heart function when he arrived. Most patients who come to us in that state will not make it. But he did.”

‘More life to live’

After a week in the hospital, Watkins was healthy enough to go home. His heart was recovering and the device had been removed. What was unknown was how long it would be before his heart was functioning at full capacity again. He was grateful to be alive and prepared for the long road ahead.

At a follow up appointment with his cardiologist just eight weeks later, Watkins’ ultrasound would show something no one expected. His heart was functioning at 100 percent – he suffered no deficits from his heart attack, or the subsequent cardiac arrest.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, those who survive cardiac arrest are likely to suffer from injury to the brain and nervous system and other physical ailments.

“The look on the doctor’s face was like he couldn’t believe it,” Watkins said, laughing. “None of us thought I was going to survive, and here I am with a perfectly functional heart. Can you believe it?”

Fast-forward to February: four months after his heart attack, he is back to exercising, reading his Bible and relishing this new season of life with his family. When he goes back to Novant Health Heart & Vascular Institute for follow-ups, everyone remembers him.

“By all accounts, I shouldn’t be here,” Watkins said. “I thank God continuously for the very fact that those people at Matthews Medical Center wanted to be doctors and nurses, and for the training and technology that was available and used in my recovery.”

The experience has turned into a reset for Watkins and his family. He is grateful for this time at home with his three adult children, who hug him a little tighter now. Since his heart attack in September, the family has gone on trips together, reconnected with family and friends, and sent Christmas cards for the first time in 10 years.

“It’s a very special time … it’s a gift to us,” Anne said. “It could’ve very easily been different. We could’ve been planning a funeral, thinking about me being a widow, and how to make do without the breadwinner of the family… but it was a very different ending for us. He’s got more life to live.”

Heart disease accounts for one of every seven deaths in the United States. That’s why Novant Health is dedicated to the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of heart and vascular conditions. Download our heart health basics guide.