Justin Faloon has had four heart attacks.
He’s endured a quintuple bypass.
He’s received an extraordinarily high number of stents – 35.
Yet perhaps the best part of his story doesn’t involve the care he’s received. It’s about the lives he’s saved.
Justin’s tale dates to the first day of June in 1999, when he was 29 and working as the security manager of a hospital in Bangor, Maine. He woke up one morning with all the classic symptoms of a heart attack – chest pain, pain in his left arm, nausea, profuse sweating and even grey skin.
He tried telling himself it was just the flu, but he was soon calling 9-1-1. He was transported to the hospital where he worked by paramedics that he knew.
A few days later, while still at the hospital, Justin had another heart attack. He then went to another hospital, where he received his first stent, a mesh-like tube that props open a blocked artery.
A smoker with a strong family history of heart disease, Justin knew he needed to change his lifestyle. He cut out foods high in fat and sugar, exercised more and tried to quit smoking.
A few years later, Justin was working in law enforcement in Colorado when he noticed he was easily getting fatigued and short of breath. Doctors placed two more stents. Then a cardiac catheterization procedure showed that he had so much plaque build-up that he needed a quintuple bypass.
That excruciating procedure was in 2004. In 2008, his doctors advised him to find less stressful work, so he moved back to Maine and worked in a canoe factory. That also proved to be too strenuous, so he took a job as lead surveillance agent at a local casino, a role that allowed him to remain seated.
Along the way, Justin’s stent total continued to rise. He received stents in his coronary arteries and within grafted vessels, stents within stents and at least one “full metal jacket,” where the entire artery is lined with stents.
“It was a downhill slope at that point,” Justin said.
In 2011, Justin suffered a heart attack – and another six months later. That did it; his doctor said Justin could no longer work.
While Justin knew it was probably best for his health, leaving the work force at age 44 was a psychological blow.
“Except for recovery times, I’d only been out of work for three weeks in my entire life,” Justin said. “I was an emotional wreck.”
And soon, a financial wreck.
“I went from having a savings account to having no money,” said Justin, who also has given up his kayaking, hiking, hunting and fishing. “I lost everything.”
His world turned upside down, Justin needed about nine months to find a new semblance of order. One way he decided to fill his time was by volunteering with a local search and rescue organization. Another way was volunteering with the American Heart Association.
Justin – who turned 47 on Thursday – enjoys sharing his story on behalf of the AHA, helping raise awareness about heart health and the importance of funding heart research. Cardiovascular disease is the No. 1 cause of death in the United States, and the AHA is the nation’s oldest, largest voluntary organization devoted to fighting cardiovascular diseases and stroke.
The AHA funds more cardiovascular research than any organization outside the federal government, having invested in excess of $3.7 billion, including more than $100 million annually since 1996. The organization has funded research by 13 Nobel Prize winners and has been part of many lifesaving advancements such as the first artificial heart valve, cholesterol-inhibiting drugs, heart transplantation, and CPR techniques and guidelines.
“I don’t have a lot of money to contribute, but I wanted to give something back to AHA because they’d given so much to me,” said Justin, who in February spoke as the Heart Hero at the Northeastern Maine Heart Ball. “I don’t like attention, but if my story can help raise money for research, I’m happy to share it.”
Justin used to be afraid to share details with people, partly out of embarrassment. He especially avoided talking about the number of stents he's received because of the shock value. Now he realizes the importance of sharing his story – and including that shocking statistic as a powerful element of his story. He even delivers it with a bit of humor: When his tally was in the 20s, he joked about going for the world record - which, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, is 34. After receiving his 35th, he told his doctor, "I was just joking!" (He's looked into the paperwork to claim the record, but opted not to bother.)
In addition to spreading awareness, Justin refreshed his credentials as a CPR instructor. He now trains others to be potential lifesavers.
He’s even used the skills himself. On Thanksgiving 2013, Justin revived an unconscious man believed to be experiencing a drug overdose.
At the Heart Ball in February, Justin shared more stories of lives he’s impacted.
“Many years ago, in what I jokingly call another life, I saved a 3-year-old from being hit by a bus,” he said. “A few years after that, I saved a woman who was unconscious in a burning building.
“Could someone else have run out in a major four-lane street to save that little girl? No, I was the only one close enough to have done something. Could someone have gone into that burning building to pull that lady out? No, I was the only one other than her son – who had already been overcome by smoke – to go in.
“Bear in mind, that this all happened after my bypass surgery.”
Photos courtesy of Justin Faloon