This story easily could have been an obituary for BJ Harris, who's in his tenth year of co-hosting the popular Alice 105.9 morning show with Denver radio legend Jamie White. After shrugging off worrisome symptoms for a year or so, Harris suffered a heart attack on Saturday, January 9, that might have proven fatal if not for quick action on the part of medical professionals. And yet, because of the particular type of cardiac episode he experienced, he was back behind the microphone early the next week, fully cognizant of how fortunate he is.
"I'm looking at a full recovery," Harris says. "It could have been worse — a lot worse."
While radio listenership has taken a hit during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Harris-and-White combo has continued to fly high, landing in the top five for 2020 as a whole among all listeners age twelve and over, according to our recent ratings roundup. But throughout those months, Harris was dealing with an intermittent health issue — if mostly disregarding it qualifies as dealing with it.
"Maybe a year or so ago, I started getting these spasms or cramps in my chest," he recalls. "The first time it happened, I went to the doctor and they did different stress tests — that whole calcium test thing they do for blockages in your heart. And they came to the conclusion it was more related to my chest muscles than my heart. So I didn't think about it that much. Every now and again, I'd get it and it would go away after ten minutes."
This past Thanksgiving morning, Harris suffered an even scarier version of this phenomenon: "It was really severe. It probably lasted for thirty minutes. But being a dude like I am, I didn't go to the doctor. I thought, 'It's just this one time.' You know how we are."
Then, at around 5:30 a.m. on January 9, "I could really feel it coming on," he continues. "I went downstairs and had a glass of milk; I thought I would coat everything inside and it would be fine. But it kept really kicking in, worse than anything I'd ever had."
Harris's wife didn't realize he was up and in pain until around 6:15 a.m., and once she figured out what was happening, her first instinct was to call 911. But the situation had escalated to the point where Harris wasn't sure that would be quick enough. "I started to feel like I was going to pass out," he recalls, "and all this crap goes through your head — like, 'Maybe I waited too long and there isn't time for an ambulance.'"
Fortunately, the Harris family lives just two minutes from an urgent care facility. Upon their arrival there, personnel "assumed it was a heart attack, and they gave me something to calm me down and calm my heart down. There's this stuff in your bloodstream called troponin they measure to see if you're having a heart attack, and it's supposed to be at .0 to .02 — and I was at a 4.23," he says.
This diagnosis triggered an immediate ambulance ride to Swedish Medical Center, and by the time Harris got there, his troponin reading was even higher: "I was at a 5.73, so they were quite concerned."
So was Harris, and not only because of the still-persistent agony. He was also worried about potential exposure to the novel coronavirus. "That was one of the first things I said to them, even though I was on drugs to settle me down: 'Are we going to an area where you have COVID-19 patients? Because I don't need that on top of everything else.' And they said all the COVID-19 patients were on a certain floor and they never come into contact with people who are at the hospital for other reasons. Even the doctors and nurses there don't mingle with the rest of the staff," he recalls. "So I felt safe, and they were really good about answering all my questions."
Before long, the doctors at Swedish made an important discovery. "Most heart attacks are from blockages caused by calcium deposits that clog up everything because of the diets we have, or there's a blood clot," Harris notes. "But I was having a different kind. The smaller arteries at the bottom of my heart were having these spasms, opening and shutting — but every once in a while, they would stay closed. And that was an easier fix. For the other kind, the fix is stints or surgery, like a quadruple bypass. But for the kind I had, they treat it with medication."
That diagnosis came the next day, January 10. "They ran a scope through my wrist to my heart," Harris says, "and after they were done, they looked at me and said, 'You're going home today.'" And when the medical staff learned that he's a radio host, they let him know that a long layoff from work might not be necessary.
"They told me, 'It's really up to you when you go back,'" he remembers. "And by Tuesday, I felt good enough that I just didn't want to sit around the house. I mean, all I've got to do is go in and talk for four hours."
The response to his story among Alice listeners was immediate, passionate and heartfelt, Harris says: "Everyone was very encouraging, a lot of sympathy: 'We're praying for you, great to have you back, glad it wasn't worse, you're a lucky man.' Totally positive — and it was good to get that feedback, good to get back to the routine, good to get the news I got."
In the days that followed, Harris found himself tiring more easily than usual; that four-hour shift can leave him feeling wiped out. "It's just getting used to the meds," he allows. "I'm on, like, five different ones, and I've never taken medication in my life. I've been very healthy, other than this."
He's learned plenty of lessons, he concedes. "When you get signs like I did, you need to act, especially when you're over 45 or 50," he says. "If your body tells you that you need to get something looked at, you need to get it looked at. I mean, I had all kinds of red flags that went up that I didn't pay attention to. I told my wife and Jamie, in the studio, 'I don't know why I'm getting tired so much lately. I don't even have the energy to play with my kid at home and do simple stuff, and I don't know why.' And that was a sign. I kept ignoring it, thinking it was part of aging as a dude. But I'm not ignoring it anymore. I've got a whole lot of doctors' appointments coming up, and you bet I'll be there.
"I know it's quick to be back to work, but with what I had, it was feasible. And there's no place I'd rather be than in the studio. It makes me happy."
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