As he helped oversee fitness tests for fellow Army soldiers, who do push-ups, sit-ups and a two-mile run periodically to check their physical ability, Sullivan underwent his own fitness test at Fort Carson, Colorado.
“Ordinarily, I am very good at these events, and that day I almost failed the run portion,” said Sullivan, recalling his experience in May 2004 when he was 33 years old. “I started feeling really bad, really out of breath and a very tight feeling in my chest.”
Making his way two blocks to an Army medical clinic, Sullivan experienced tunnel vision and chest pain. At the clinic he reached for the door and passed out. He awoke and managed to get inside and explain his symptoms.
A doctor quickly asked questions, did an EKG and gave him nitroglycerin in a matter of seconds. Then he told him: “You’re having a heart attack.”
Sullivan survived and would turn his recovery into rejuvenation, with the American Heart Association as the beneficiary. But first he faced a long road to restoring his health.
Sullivan was moved in about an hour to a hospital on post then within 24 hours to a major cardiac unit at a hospital in Colorado Springs. Doctors there immediately placed a stent in one completely blocked artery. He was also given a nitroglycerin drip. A week later he received two more stents in partially blocked arteries.
Stents are wire mesh tubes that are inserted into narrowed arteries to prop them open and prevent re-blockage. This allows blood and oxygen to flow to the heart muscle.
In a heart attack, a blocked artery prevents oxygen-rich blood from reaching a section of the heart, and if the artery isn’t reopened quickly that part of the heart begins to die. Symptoms can come on suddenly or can start slowly and persist. In Sullivan’s case, the doctor called him the “miracle man” because he survived such a potentially deadly episode.
Looking back, Sullivan remembers that before his heart attack he felt “sort of faint” once when quickly climbing a flight a stairs. He believes he should have paid attention to that incident.
Shortness of breath and decreased exercise capacity are definitely symptoms to look out for, particularly if they develop over the short term and differ from what the person has experienced previously when exercising, according to Dr. Donna Arnett, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Epidemiology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Public Health.
Fitness tests can be useful tools. Being unfit increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, and better fitness test results mean someone is less likely to have cardiovascular disease, Arnett said.
“In fact, some scientists have argued that fitness is much more important for cardiovascular disease than fatness,” she noted. “The good news doesn’t stop with cardiovascular diseases – better fitness levels are also associated with reduced risk of stroke and cognitive decline.”
Through continued visits to a cardiologist and physical rehab, Sullivan regained his strength and resumed running, despite some warnings that he should do no more than a brisk walk.
“I just felt like I was too young, and I felt like my time wasn’t done yet,” he said. Gradually, Sullivan began to “wog,” what he jokingly calls a combination of a walk and jog. “I slowly built on that foundation.”
“I felt like, ‘Wow, I’m OK,’ ” he said.
While living in Virginia and intensifying his running, Sullivan began to pay closer attention to the environment.
“I was affected by how littered some of my roads were,” he said. Sullivan started to wear a backpack during his runs and picked up trash and recyclable bottles and cans.
When his family moved to Leavenworth, Kansas, – his wife AJ is an active duty Army officer; Joe Sullivan received a medical discharge – he trained for another marathon and continued to pick up litter.
“As you’re running, you have a lot of time to think. I thought, ‘I can do something bigger with this,’’’ he said.
His family moved again for his wife’s military assignment, this time to Fort Drum, New York. Sullivan, an illustrator and stay-at-home Dad, opened a Twitter account and called himself RecyclingRunner.
By fall 2012, others were noticing his efforts. A fitness blogger interviewed him, and word spread. Sullivan raised cash from recyclables and sought additional donations, giving the money to the American Heart Association.
The company Waste Management sponsored him with running gear and a $500 match for his fundraising. In 2013, the RecyclingRunner ran 38 to 50 miles per week and raised $1,574.10.
Along with online articles and social media attention, Sullivan was featured in his local newspaper and in Runners World.
The Army veteran continued his many miles of running and picking up litter in 2014, often while pushing his 2-year-old twins, Jacob and Joshua, in their double stroller and with his wife at his side. He also has an 18-year-old, Nathan, who is carrying on the family military tradition and is in basic training in the Army reserves.
Sullivan is on pace to reach his current goal of running 2,014 miles this year and raising at least $1,000 by his “finish line” of Veterans Day on Nov. 11, thanks to the help of an AHA online pledge page and the thousands of recyclable items he has retrieved. His deadline also arrives in time for America Recycles Day on Nov. 15.
This year is the tenth anniversary of his heart attack, and Sullivan realizes he has much to be thankful for at age 43.
“Running gives me the confidence that I’m fighting heart disease,” he said. “It keeps me going.”
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