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From cautionary tale to national heart-health advocate

Lake Tapps resident Vance Lobe has survived two heart attacks and was invited to the White House last month to discuss cardiac health. - Brian Beckley/The Courier-Herald
Lake Tapps resident Vance Lobe has survived two heart attacks and was invited to the White House last month to discuss cardiac health.
— image credit: Brian Beckley/The Courier-Herald

Vance Lobe never expected to make it all the way to the White House to talk about cardiac health issues.  Then again, Lobe didn't expect to make it out of Kent.

"I'm a miracle to even be here," he said this past week in his Lake Tapps home, recalling the massive heart attack that almost ended his life three years ago.

"They call that one 'The Widow-maker,'" Lobe said, adding that doctors told him he had a 100 percent blockage in an artery and that his heart stopped three different times on the way to the hospital.

Lobe, quite obviously, has changed his lifestyle and now hopes to persuade others to change theirs so they don't have to go through the same thing he did.

"I was that guy you're not supposed to be," he said.

Lobe, 56, said he was overweight, a divorced salesman eating out of a box every night, taking no time out for exercise and passing his time with cigarettes. As if his lifestyle weren't enough, the genetics were stacked against him: both of his grandfathers also died of heart attacks.

Lobe was on a sales call in Kent when he started to feel pressure in his chest. At first, he thought it was just heartburn from his Thai lunch.

But mild discomfort soon gave way to a feeling not unlike a basketball pushing its way out of his chest. When the uncontrollable sweating started, Lobe knew he was in trouble.

He doesn't remember much about the hours afterward. He remembers telling the client he would be right back, and then brief moments from the ride to the hospital.

At one point, an EMT told him to think about something important, something to keep living for. Lobe thought of his sons: Tyler, 23, Matt, 21 and Jacob, 19. The boys later joined him—teary-eyed—bedside at the hospital.

"My sons were always my first priority," he said. "It's no fun being wheeled out of a room having your sons cry because they think you're dead."

In the 69 minutes from when he began having the attack to when the doctors were able to re-open his artery, Lobe's heart stopped three times. But he remembers the instant the doctors succeeded because the pain stopped instantly.

"A lot of things became less important," he said.

He began eating better, exercising and quit smoking. When he was healthy enough to go back to work, he returned to a sales meeting he said was so intense you could cut the tension in the room with a knife. But that too needed to change.

"I thought 'I don't want to live this way anymore,'" he said.

He was 53 years old and asked himself what he was doing with his life and what he should do next with the second chance he felt was given to him.

"I needed to get involved and make a difference," he said.

Lobe got involved with the American Heart Association's Heart Walk shortly after his recovery and soon he was asked to share his story and lobby the legislature in Olympia for heart-health conscious legislation.

He helped to advocate for the 2010 Emergency Cardiac and Stroke Care bill that paved the way for hospitals to share data on cardiac issues with the state Department of Health to create a database of the best hospitals to take people having heart or stroke issues. It is designed to make sure that people having a heart attack are taken to places that have cardiac centers.

Lobe believes the only reason he is alive today is because of the hospital to which he was taken.

"If I wouldn't have gone to Valley Med … I probably wouldn't have lived," he said.

"He's what we want to happen to any patient," said Lucy Culp, senior governmental relations director for the American Heart Association of Washington.

Culp said the Heart Association members were amazed by his story and recognized Lobe's ability to discuss his heart attack and the factors that led to it in such a way that it really seems to connect with people.

"As he says, he was a walking heart attack," Culp said. "He's really seen it.

"People just seem to get it from him," she said, calling him a normal guy with a compelling story.

Since working on the initial bill, Lobe has continued to work with the Heart Association on legislative matters, even going as far as Washington D.C. to talk about funding for the National Institute of Health.

Then, about six weeks ago, Lobe received an email from his contact at the Heart Association, congratulating him for being selected to speak at the White House about cardiac issues.

"I didn't even know I was nominated," he said. "I'm still in awe."

Culp nominated Lobe to go to the White House after a call from the national office asking for people from each region to discuss heart health.

"I immediately said Vance would be the perfect person," Culp said.

Lobe was one of about 60 nominated from the 10-state western region and one of 10 to be selected to make the trip.

It was a dream come true for a self-described history buff like Lobe.

Though he did not get to meet the President or First Lady, Lobe and others selected from around the country met with the White House office of Public Engagement, Deputy Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, members of the Domestic Policy Council, the National Economic Council and the National Institute of Health.

Lobe said they talked about the little steps being taken and the work the administration is trying to do to persuade Americans to get healthier.

In the afternoon break-out sessions, Lobe went to a discussion on tobacco policy, which he said was more of a conversation, though he was the only one in the room who had smoked or suffered a heart attack.

The doctors and officials who made up the rest of the group said Lobe and others who spoke helped put a face to the problem.

"We're not just numbers," he said. "We're real people actually being affected by this on a daily basis."

Lobe has learned to view his own heart attack in a positive light.

"It was almost a blessing," he said. "It finally woke me up and slapped me in the face as to what was important and how to live my life."

Today, Lobe's doctors have given him a clean bill of health. He hopes his story will resonate with others who were like him.

"I'm just a guy that didn't do things right and I paid the price for it," he said.

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