Some people daydream of retirement. Not Lee Faulk. At 65, the race shop owner was still flooring it at work.

“My dad was just like everybody else’s dad back in the day. He got up before sunup and worked ‘til sundown,” Faulk said. “So, I’ve always done that my whole life. I just work, work, work, work, work.”

Nestled in an industrial park in Denver, North Carolina, Lee Faulk Racing and Development has helped launch the careers of some talented NASCAR drivers.

Lee Faulk as a NASCAR driver 1990s
Lee Faulk, pictured at Charlotte Motor Speedway, drove in NASCAR in the early 90's.

Preparation is key to winning, but even small mistakes can bring the race to a screeching halt. Faulk learned the same rules apply to life on June 23, 2021, when he had a massive heart attack.

But events ultimately broke his way that day, thanks in large part to coordination between first responders and his care team at Novant Health Huntersville Medical Center. He sought emergency treatment right away, a decision that minimized damage to his heart and ultimately, saved his life.

“I realize how lucky I am to be here,” Faulk said. “It’s pretty special when you get that second opportunity.”

Unlike his 'normal, jovial self'

He didn’t feel well that morning but as always, Faulk got in his truck and drove to work. Things quickly got worse.

"It felt like a truck was sitting on my chest. My arms hurt so bad I wanted to pull them off. My lips got numb, I broke out in a sweat and I thought, 'Something is really wrong.'"

Lee Faulk
He walked next door to East Lincoln Fire Department – Base 2 in Denver.

“I saw Lee walking over on the security camera and met him at the door,” said Captain Gary Farmer. “He looked a little pale, but the concern on his face is what stood out. He wasn’t his normal, jovial self.”

Firefighters called 911.

A community effort

When Lincoln County EMS arrived, paramedic Ashley Jeune instantly realized that Faulk was in bad shape.

“I hooked Lee up to a heart monitor and once I saw the EKG, all signs pointed to a massive heart attack,” Jeune said. She rode in the back as her EMT colleague, Ethan Bivens, rushed them to the hospital.

Lincoln County EMS
Paramedic Ashley Jeune (left) and EMT Ethan Bivens

Faulk was fully alert as he worried what might happen next. “Reality hits you as you’re riding in the back of an ambulance,” he said.

“I honestly thought, ‘Hell, I might not make this.’ It was that bad.”

But EMS made an important decision before they arrived, doctors said, by alerting the emergency department at Huntersville Medical Center.

Time is (heart) muscle

dr michael cantor
Dr. Michael Cantor

It turned out Faulk was having what’s known in medical circles as a STEMI or ST-segment elevation myocardial infarction. It’s the most severe type of heart attack, and the need for quick treatment is critical, said Dr. Michael Cantor, an interventional cardiologist in Huntersville.

“As each second ticks away, the heart muscle is starving for oxygen and nutrients, and is actively at risk of dying,” Cantor said. “You have to imagine, the artery is 100% blocked, almost as if someone tied a knot around it.”

As a cardiologist, Cantor quickly “unties the knot” by locating the blockage and inserting a stent (or hollow tube).

capt gary farmer 2
Captain Gary Farmer

“The national standard is 90 minutes or less from the time a patient arrives at the hospital until their artery is open and blood flow is restored,” Cantor said.

But we set the bar a little higher for ourselves at Novant Health. In Mr. Faulk’s case, we did this in 23 minutes.”

23 minutes

It casts a light on how important EMS in this whole STEMI process, Cantor said. “If they weren’t able to activate us from the field, it would have taken us more time to evaluate Mr. Faulk and get him prepped and into the procedure room. So, instead of 23 minutes, it could have easily been 43 minutes.”

And – it dawned on Faulk as he lay in the recovery room – 43 minutes could have resulted in a very different outcome. He compared the experience to what he knows best: a pit stop.
“Races are won and lost in the pits. If one person fails, it messes the whole stop up,” he said. “That day in the emergency room, everybody had a job. There’s three people on this side, three people on this side, they’re taking your clothes off and getting you ready. It was just like a very-orchestrated pit stop.”

Subtle warning signs

Looking back, Faulk said he missed the subtle warning signs in the month before his heart attack.

“I was feeling weak and draggy, like I didn’t have any get up and go. I just thought, ‘Well, I’m 65. I’m getting on in my years. You know, I’m just tired.”

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His heartburn also worsened, especially at night, which Cantor said may have been a warning sign. But Faulk dismissed it at the time. After all, he was always popping antacids and aspirin.

He realizes now that his body’s check engine light was on. Never one to go to the doctor, Faulk cautions others not to make the same mistake.

“Just like the gauge panel on a car, your body tells you when there are issues you can’t see,” he said. “Don’t ignore what it’s trying to tell you.”

Had Faulk sought emergency treatment when his symptoms began, Cantor said the heart attack could have been prevented.

“If he had come in sooner, Mr. Faulk could have had an elective procedure to stabilize his heart before the STEMI occurred,” he said.

“We’re here to help no matter what, but we always encourage folks to seek care early. When it comes to your heart, you can’t afford to take chances."

Healthier choices

Lee Faulk with granddaughter
Lee Faulk smiles for a picture with his granddaughter.

Faulk’s heart attack inspired him to live a healthier lifestyle.

“I realized, I get a second chance at life here,” he told his wife, Amby, in the recovery room. “I need to straighten up a little bit and start eating better, do some exercise and take care of my body a little bit more.”

Faulk also learned he has coronary heart disease. CAD, a main cause of heart attack, is the most common type of heart disease in the U.S.

CAD can lead to heart failure if it goes untreated, Cantor said, “so a combination of medication and healthier lifestyle choices are used to not only treat the actual heart attack, but also to help prevent a future event.”

  • Aspirin: Taken daily, Cantor said aspirin helps prevent blood cells – called platelets – from clumping together to form a clot.
  • Statins: Cantor also recommends a cholesterol medicine, usually in the statin family, which can help prevent heart attack and stroke by reducing bad cholesterol levels. A buildup of bad cholesterol can leave fatty deposits in the arteries and restrict (or block) blood flow.
  • Beta blockers: “We also use beta blockers,” Cantor said, a medication that helps the heart beat slower and with less force, which lowers blood pressure.
  • Blood thinners: Blood thinning medications, known as anticoagulants, help slow down the body’s process of making clots. “These are important as the stent heals up after surgery,” Cantor said.
  • Lifestyle changes: A diet rich in fruits and vegetables, regular exercise, maintaining a healthy weight and quitting smoking can also lower your risk of a heart attack.

A new outlook

In the year since his heart attack, Faulk has made a full recovery. And he looks at things a lot differently now.

"Looking out the back doors of an ambulance, you think about all the things you want to say to the people you love. I don't care who you are, tomorrow is not guaranteed. So, it just changes your whole outlook on life. It really does."

Lee Faulk

Nationally recognized cardiac care

Novant Health Huntersville Medical Center offers a variety of cardiovascular services aimed at preventing, diagnosing, treating and recovering from cardiovascular diseases.

It is a full Cycle III Chest Pain Center, accredited by the Society of Chest Pain Centers – a designation that recognizes the highest national standards for treatment of heart attack and chest pain patients.

Additionally, HMC is one of only three referring hospitals in the nation to receive the American Heart Association’s Bronze Mission: Lifeline Award for excellence in heart attack care.

For more information about heart and vascular services in Huntersville, call 704-316-4000.