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Sharp Health News

What is a ‘widowmaker’ heart attack?

April 5, 2017

What is a ‘widowmaker’ heart attack?

Celebrity trainer Bob Harper made headlines when he suffered a heart attack — a shock to fans across the country given his young age and fit physique.

Harper, 51, was at the gym when he dropped to the floor and stopped breathing. He credits two doctors and a defibrillator nearby for saving his life. He’s lucky — few people who experience this type of heart attack live to tell about it.

Harper’s heart attack was especially serious because it was what experts call a widowmaker. But what is a widowmaker, and what do patients need to know to protect themselves and their loved ones when every second counts? Dr. Steven J. Rough, an interventional cardiologist with Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center, explains.

What is a widowmaker?
To understand a widowmaker is to understand a heart attack. A heart attack occurs when one or more of the three arteries that run over the surface of the heart become blocked and prevent blood from reaching the heart muscle.

Typically, everyone is born with right and left coronary arteries. On the left side of the heart is a major artery known as the left main. This then splits to the circumflex and the left anterior descending (LAD) artery, which is an important artery as it’s responsible for supplying blood to a large part of the heart. When there is a critical blockage or occlusion in the left main or at the beginning of the LAD, the blood supply to a majority of the heart muscle goes down.

This type of heart attack has serious consequences, so it’s important that we treat it immediately.

Is it possible to know if someone is having a widowmaker?
There’s no way for the average person to discern between the types of heart attack until the patient is under medical evaluation and receiving care. With that said, the same recommendation is true for every heart attack: Seek medical attention immediately.

If you or someone you know is experiencing the symptoms of a heart attack, the first thing you should do is call 911 immediately. Then, begin CPR if the person is unconscious; if an automated external defibrillator (AED) is nearby, use it. An aspirin can be taken if the patient is able to take it.

How is a widowmaker treated?
A major heart attack in the LAD artery is most often treated with angioplasty or percutaneous coronary intervention (placing a stent to open the artery) or coronary artery bypass surgery; during coronary artery bypass surgery, the surgeon “bypasses” the blockage with an artery from the chest or arm or vein from the leg, and attaches it to the coronary artery. This “graft” transports blood around the blockage to improve flow to the heart muscle. The sooner we can treat a heart attack by restoring blood flow, the less damage that will be done to the heart.

For the news media: To talk with Dr. Rough about heart attacks for an upcoming story, contact Erica Carlson, senior public relations specialist, at

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