Bob Harper: I had a ‘widow maker’ heart attack with a 6 percent survival rate

Celebrity trainer Bob Harper, 51, had a heart attack earlier this year, you probably heard. It was scary to realize that heart disease can affect anyone, particularly a fit, vital guy like Bob. You know who else just had a heart attack? Antonio Banderas, 56, had one in January although he claims it was mild and that he’s recovered. He’s only telling us about it now and I think he’s downplaying it, but I do hope he’s ok. Unlike Antonio, Bob’s heart attack was serious. He did an interview with the Today Show in which he explained what happened when he had a heart attack at the gym. He went into full cardiac arrest and actually died, but luckily there were two doctors there who immediately performed CPR and used a defibrillator on me. Bob has been doing cardiac rehab and is feeling much better now. He said he’s been following his doctors’ orders.

On the day of his heart attack
I had what they call a ‘widow-maker.’ It was a 6 percent survival rate, and the fact that there were doctors in the gym when I had the heart attack saved my life.

I don’t remember that day at all. I went to the gym like I always do. It was Sunday morning I was working out with some friends of mine. At the end of the workout I went down to the ground. If you’ve ever done Crossfit, you know that people go to the ground. About a minute later the coach went into full damage control. There was an event going on at the gym and [they] found two doctors there. I was so lucky.

They started performing CPR on me. They pulled out the AEDs (defibrillator) and used that on me twice before the paramedics got there. They jolted me one more time.

I was in full cardiac arrest, my heart stopped. Not to be dramatic but I was on that ground dead.

What happened when he woke up a few days later after being in a coma
It was super scary for me. I woke up and I was so confused. I was like Dory from finding Nemo. I had this short term memory. I was like ‘wait, why am I here?’ Ten minutes later I was asking the same thing. My friends were so great. It was so sad but kind of funny too.

On having a heart attack at 51 despite how fit he is
It is so important to know your health. There were things going on inside my body that I needed to be more aware of. Go to the doctor, get your cholesterol checked, see what’s going on on the inside.

On if he pushed himself too hard
Before the heart attack I was having like dizzy spells and I thought, maybe I should’ve really taken that more seriously. It’s been a huge wake-up call for me.


Bob said he’s been feeling depressed and facing his own mortality but that it’s also taught him what’s important in life. He’s no longer worrying about the small things and is more focused on his friends, family and his dog. Bob got a little choked up during that part.

This was such a nice interview and I came away from it with so much respect and admiration for Bob. He went through so much and it’s so good to hear he’s on the other side of it now. Incidentally, the signs of a heart attack can be much different for women. Here’s more about the signs of a heart attack in general.

Here’s Bob’s interview on The Today Show.

I’m a fan! I’m going to try this guy’s workouts now.

Staying warm inside with Karl. We went on our walk earlier and it was FREEZING!! #heartattacksurvivor

A post shared by Bob Harper (@trainerbob) on

Photos credit: WENN and Instagram/Bob Harper

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31 Responses to “Bob Harper: I had a ‘widow maker’ heart attack with a 6 percent survival rate”

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  1. Veronica says:

    If it’s *the* Widowmaker, he had an occlusion of the anterior descending branch of the left coronary artery. That’s the artery that feeds most of the left ventricle, which powers systemic output. You literally have minutes to survive in some of those cases. Cardiac tissue isn’t capable of self-regeneration, so any necrosis that sets in only results in functionless scar tissue. Scary stuff.

    • vauvert says:

      Veronica, what test would identify this as a risk? Not all of us will be lucky enough to have doctors around in these vital 2 minutes – and defibrillators too.

      • NotSoSocialButterfy says:

        A cardiac catheterization is still the gold standard for detection of lesions, but would not be performed without risk factors present.

      • Matomeda says:

        Vauvert; go to your cardiologist annually for a wellness check. Most (my normal) insurance covers it. She’s right about catheters being gold standard, but other than that, a stress test will show if there is suspicion of issues, and an echo or MRI will show heart function, structural issues (like thickening), ejection fraction (the output of your left ventricle that will show if you’re pumping enough blood, damage/heart failure check, and detect rhythm, too (abnormal rhythm is common but the dangerous kind, afib, can lead to sudden cardiac arrest). They’ll also do a full workup of total cholesterol, blood pressure and heart rate. Bring up ANY symptoms- dizzy spells, shortness of breath, anything. You might think it’s not related but sone odd symptoms are. I get checked annually because of genetics. I wasn’t told I need to- but I choose to do it because I don’t want to find out when it’s too late and I’m on the floor myself.

    • mellie says:

      A good friend of mine, who is a high school basketball referee, was working a summer basketball game and felt some tightness in his chest, began to feel sick and dizzy. He immediately called his wife over (their son was playing at the time), they went straight to the hospital and he had a stent put in that area as he was in the middle of a heart attack…they told him it was the widow maker area as well. For a while he was on the straight and narrow with his diet, now he’s back to the same old crap, gained back a bunch of weight. It’s frustrating, imagine being that close to death…I sure wouldn’t want to go back there if I could avoid it!

    • Tania says:

      Not to mention that he’s super fortunate to be cognitively intact. He clearly had excellent CPR and was in the right place at the right time–a witnessed arrest, good CPR with early access to a defibrillator. I can’t tell you how many people we are able to resuscitate but end up in a vegetative state because of the lack of oxygen to the brain.

    • NotSoSocialButterfy says:

      Veronica,I’m pretty sure the left main is the Widowmaker. The LAD comes off the left main. Think of it as an inverted Y, the stem of the Y being the left main, with the other branch being the circ ( circumflex). The blockage is typically where the left main bifurcates into the LAD and the circ.

      • vauvert says:

        Butterfly, thanks for the answer to my earlier question. What you describe sounds less like a test people would ask for / or their doctor would routinely recommend though anymore like something that gets done when a person already exhibits symptoms (water they may be).

        I was wondering whether in the normal course of health checkups there is something one can do in the ways of testing or blood work or whatever that could warn you that you are at risk??

  2. Patricia says:

    Be well, Bob!! He is a very sweet and genuine person. Thank goodness he didn’t have such an untimely death.
    This makes me very nervous though. There’s no history of heart attack in my family, but it really can strike anyone. Sure, people who are abusing their bodies are more at risk, but living a very clean life doesn’t take all the risk away.
    Still it’s better to be as healthy as you can. I’m sure the healthy state of Bob’s body helped him get through this better than if he had been unhealthy.

    • Bluesky says:

      I’m in the healthcare industry and would consider myself in pretty good shape. I work out 5 days a week plus I run. I had blood work done about 3 years ago and was shocked at the results. My HDL levels were low and my LDL was slightly elevated. Despite my best efforts, the numbers were not moving. I have a family history of heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes. I did research on fish oil and found a supplement that had the right amount of components that make up the Omega 3s. I was happily surprised to see in a 2 month period that my cholesterol levels change. I have been taking fish oil faithfully, my total cholesterol is within normal limits, my HDL went from 39 to 61, which any number > 59 is considered a negative risk factor for CHD. My LDL went from 100 to 93.

      Bob is right about paying attention to the inside as well as the inside.

      • Matomeda says:

        Blue sky, could you pleas give he name of the fish oil you take? I’ll check back for your answer. Thank you!

  3. Bridget says:

    “Go to ground” – Am I reading this right that he’s saying it’s totally normal to drop like that after a Crossfit workout? Because no, it’s not.

    What happened to Bob is one of my worst fears – I’m a distance runner. I also make sure to get checked out by my doc because of that, and am aware of all the heart attack signs. He is so lucky, and while I can understand how he’s struggling right now (facing your own mortality like that has gotta screw you up) I hope that he recovers both physically and emotionally.

    • derpshooter says:

      And if it is somehow normal to drop after Crossfit, then crossfit deserves ALL the shit it gets from people.
      I’ve heard horror stories and then had others tell me their classes aren’t like that at all. Must be down to the trainer and maybe the culture at the gym. Sounds like his trainer should be thanked for saving his life and fired for putting it in danger.

      • Bridget says:

        A lot of Crossfitters say exactly that – “oh, my class isn’t like that at all!” but I haven’t exactly seen much evidence to the contrary. Yikes. And Bob is a seasoned expert in his field!

    • Tata says:

      I was wondering what he meant by “go to the ground.” Thanks for explaining what it is and how it is not normal.

      I went to two crossfit classes as a trial thing, and while the camaraderie was nice, and the instructors also seemed sweet, I also witnessed people throwing up because the workout was so hard. there was also some weird dieting mentality (some swedish guy doing no carbs, other people obsessed with this meal plan/delivery service?) and some women laughing about peeing their pants from deadlifts and jumping rope, which is not normal (not all had had kids, which to me says their pelvic floor was out of sorts).

      I thought hmm I will stick to walks /jogs and yoga.

      • Bridget says:

        What it says to me is that they are muscling through with weights that are way too heavy for what they can handle, and are bearing down on their pelvic floor instead of being able to use their core as their foundation. Which is how you give yourself a hernia. You’re right – none of this stuff is normal, and I wouldn’t suggest sticking around there!

  4. Alix says:

    Mr. Fitness Buff was experiencing dizzy spells and didn’t think to get them checked out? Not getting regular cholesterol readings? Being fit isn’t a cure-all (ask Jim Fixx). Men do tend to be idiots about their health.

  5. eogie says:

    Oh wow this story hits close to home. My dad had a stent put in recently and his blockage was located in the widow maker (LAD artery). Like Bob he is super fit and the only symptom he had was dizziness, that everyone thought was related to too strong blood pressure medication. Only his doctor pushed for more tests it would have never been discovered. Luckily he is fine now, but it’s terrifying to think what might have been.

    • megan says:

      Wow this is so scary that it can happen to someone so fit! Makes me wonder if doing all that high intensity exercise is really worth it. He was so fortunate to be where he was when it happened.

      I wish there was some kind of test routinely done that could predict a heart attack. My mother’s family is riddled with cardiac problems so it’s a concern to me.

      I wish Bob all the best and I hope he makes it a priority to inform people about this issue and how to recognize the signs.

      • Bridget says:

        High intensity exercise doesn’t cause heart attacks. And for most people, regular checkups at the doctor are sufficient – you heard Bob himself say that there WERE warning signs, he just ignored them. When you hear stories about someone of perfect health just dropping, they have an underlying heart issue (something beyond what is normally checked for), but that’s not what Bob is talking about here.

    • derpshooter says:

      Back when I was in college a friend’s dad died from a heart attack. He was very fit, always had been, and ate super healthy, etc. He went for his morning run in the neighborhood and dropped dead two doors down in the middle of the street. He’d never mentioned any signs you could look back on and go “oh, we should have checked on that”. He ran and biked, but neither to any extreme, just normal fun-but-healthy stuff. It still scares me 20+ years later that there can be problems so serious with no signs.

      • Matomeda says:

        I think there are so many sad stories like that! I think there are signs, but they’re so minimal people brush them off, like dizziness or a pain that isn’t crushing so they write it off. That’s why going in every year is so important. I strongly reccommenf annual cardiology appointments. I’m a thin, vegetarian, 35yo. I go in every year due to family history (my choice- not told to you doctors). They found an average to low to low-average heart function in me! No one would have guessed that. It probably explains my occasional dizzy spells- heart trying to keep up with pumping demands. Now they’re keeping an eye on me more frequently. I’ve tweaked my exercise and my sodium and fat intake. We will all die someday, but no one wants to pass before their time.

      • Bridget says:

        For women, it’s especially important to know what the signs are, because our heart attack symptoms are different than men’s.

  6. Snowflake says:

    That would be so crazy, to die and then be brought back. I wonder what the last moments are like. Glad he’s ok.

  7. Adrien says:

    He is recovering fast. Good for him.

  8. Needlehole says:

    That must’ve been so scary for him. I hope he continues to improve.

  9. Sam says:

    Terrifying. My husband is a long distance runner and has heart issues and i keep urging him to go to see his doctor for a physical, but he is very stubborn about his health. The heart is not something to mess around with.
    I’m so glad Bob is ok. I’ve always liked him.

    • Matomeda says:

      Good luck, Sam. I hope he listens to you. MY husband also doesn’t listen to my urging him. I don’t no understand how people can brush off their heart or symptoms. TOo scary to play with!

  10. BobaFelty says:

    My dad had a stent put in because his widowmaker was 99% blocked. This type of heart blockage is the one that makes people just drop dead. This can happen to anyone. My dad eats healthy and does a light 30-45 min cardio (biking, walking, etc) 5 days a week. Normal weight & body fat.

    His only signs were that he felt more tired than usual, and a bit out of breath when he did any activity that got his heart rate up. So he bikes to work, and all of a sudden that last hill felt difficult. He went to the doctor, thinking he might just have a small anxiety issue. Basic test for blood pressure, etc were slightly elevated but within range. The doctor told him everything was fine, but lets do a stress test since dad is over 60 and never had one. He begins to struggle breathing about 5 minutes into the workout, the doctor suddenly takes it seriously and orders a round of tests, and dad has emergency surgery the next morning.

  11. nikki says:

    I’m 62 i have been doing crossfit for 6 years + i run marathons. When i go down to the ground even when running and doing crossfit means just lying down after a long workout…not dropping I do see some people lift more than they should but overall crossfit has been very good for my stress from my job and probably has kept me healthier. Bob’s family has heart disease history.