Justin Phillips is an extremely active person.
He likes to run, walk the dogs, cycle and eats healthy. He makes all these things a priority in his life.
Despite his self-care type lifestyle, the energetic man suffered a heart attack at the young age of 30 while riding in the Tour de Toad on May 6 in Conway.
"A few miles before mile 33 I started having some pain in my chest," he said.
While the feeling left him a little uneasy, he figured it was indigestion due to the energy bar he had just consumed, and kept peddling.
"A couple miles down the road, it had spread from my chest bone to my left arm, my right shoulder, all the way down my arm," Phillips said.
He knew something was wrong and so he stopped and leaned over his bike.
"It was weird because I was like, these are the signs of a heart attack, but there’s no way this is a heart attack," he said.
A bit up the way was an aide station and Phillips said he pulled over to get a drink of water, but was still hurting. Volunteers became concerned when he told them how he was feeling and suggested he seek help.
"I really didn’t want to," he said. "But, I gave in because it was really bad."
Phillips said a truck came and took him to the finish line where a firetruck pulled up and someone took his blood pressure and other vitals, but everything came out normal. He said everyone just figured it must be indigestion.
An ambulance came and EMTs gave him aspirin and a nitroglycerin just in case and hooked him up to an EKG (electrocardiogram that checks for problems with the electrical activity of your heart) but everything appeared normal.
Once he arrived at Conway Regional Medical Center, nurses rushed him back to start performing tests. Again, everything came out normal and indigestion was the most probable outcome.
Nurses then gave Phillips a GI (gastrointestinal) cocktail to try and get rid of any acid causing the heartburn. When it didn’t work — he was still in a considerable amount of pain at this point — hospital staff started thinking it might be something else so they took blood and measured troponin levels, a chemical that is only present when heart damage occurs and how medical professionals determine if a heart attack occurred.
Still, his first level was low, indicating something was present but nothing to worry about. Later, another was taken and his levels had gone up a bit, but still nothing to be concerned about, he said. Then, a couple hours after that test, results were different.
"It was six times higher than the last test … it was up there," Phillips said. "That’s whenever the doctor came in at 4 a.m. and [said] Mr. Phillips, you suffered a minor heart attack."
At that point they knew he had a heart attack and finding out why became more relevant. One computerized tomography (CT) scan later revealed that Phillips’s arteries were clear, there was no blockage and his cholesterol was extremely good.
The doctor told him that his blood vessels, essentially their own type of muscle that can constrict on their own, did so.
"They had a cramp and constricted and cut off blood to my heart, causing a heart attack," he said.
The why is still unclear.
"He said it was just kind of a freak thing that happened to me," Phillips said.
That in itself, he said, has scared him and changed him, he said.
"That still freaks me out everyday," Phillips said.
For weeks, Phillips said he couldn’t talk to anybody about what had happened and was quite depressed. He said he wasn’t himself and was having trouble understanding why this had happened.
Recently, he shared his story for the first time and realized how much it had impacted him and had weighed on him. But, after that, Phillips said he started feeling like himself again.
"In a weird way, it’s kind of brightened my life," he said. "That might be the weirdest thing I’ve ever said."
The whole situation, Phillips said, has brought new meaning to how he lives out his days and how he interacts with people.
"You really don’t know what’s going to happen and even the people that are in the greatest of health you just have no clue," he said. "I’m very much [more] intentional [with] my actions and my words. The sun shines brighter and the grass is greener. That sounds really cliche but yeah. You just appreciate the things people do for you and just appreciate stuff more."
Phillips said he still has moments where he feels a pain in his chest and gets nervous that something is going to happen and that feeling can affect his whole day, but despite, still tries to find the good in what happened.
One way he’s tried to specifically make an impact is by sharing his story with the Arkansas Heart Foundation, who in turn published Phillips’s situation on Facebook.
"That was the start of my silver lining was being an advocate because if I can help one person i think this would be worth it," he said.
Soon Phillips will start cardio rehabilitation at the Arkansas Heart Hospital, where they will hook up to different machines so they can monitor heart activity as he exercises to try and figure out why this happened.
A piece of advice he’d offer to anyone is if there is moment in which these symptoms occur, don’t be the stubborn person who keeps going.
"If the signs are even close to a heart attack … even if you don’t think it is … wouldn’t you rather live to see another day than ride that 17 more miles," Phillips said. "Seventeen more miles or 17 more years?"