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Running with gratitude: Surviving the ‘Hollywood heart attack’

Spirit, Inspiring Stories

When I sit down with Dennis at a local restaurant in Roseville, California, the waitress wants to know if he’s famous. After requesting the quietest table in the restaurant to record our interview, the waitress’s eyes widen and she leans in as she drops two lunch menus on our table. “Ooh, is he a celebrity?” She asks, “Who is he? What did he do? Tell me!” She prods playfully, as though not answering might mean we don’t get dessert options.

I glance at Dennis, not wanting to immediately out him as “the guy that died from a heart attack while running.”

“Well, I had a heart attack…” Dennis says kindly.

“Oh! My!” Says the waitress, also not really sure how to respond. We all share this delightfully awkward moment together and then place our drink orders. Dennis points to the corner of the restaurant sectioned off by heavy red curtains—the corner that simply says, in my mind: Important People and Parties Only.

“That’s actually where we had the dinner,” Dennis says. I know exactly what dinner he’s talking about: The dinner where he formally thanked the men and women responsible for saving his life on December 15, 2015.

While training for the California International Marathon, Dennis suffered a heart attack that led to cardiac arrest.

“My running partners thought I tripped,” he says, “But then they noticed that I wasn’t getting up. They thought I hit my head.” Dennis says his running partners noticed his lips were blue and his eyes were open. His friend immediately started performing CPR and another called 911. Fortunately, there was a police officer close-by that heard the call and rushed over to help. When the paramedics arrived they had to use the defibrillator to restart his heart.

It was about eight minutes from the time Dennis went down to the time the ambulance took him away, and once he arrived at the hospital they gave him a CT scan and discovered a blockage. After placing stents in his heart and lowering his body temperature to help avoid brain damage, Dennis bounced back quickly.

“They told me that about ninety percent of people that have cardiac arrest outside of a clinical environment don’t make it. And the ones that do typically suffer neurological problems.” Dennis says he only lost two weeks of memories leading up to the event—and he doesn’t remember anything from the event itself. “I have to tell the story based on what everyone says happened. I had to piece it together. While I was in the hospital I kept forgetting what happened—I had to get my brother to tell me the story repeatedly before it ‘stuck’.”

“So you were like Dory from Finding Nemo?” I say.

“Exactly! Or like Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day,” Dennis laughs, like we are talking about a broken nose instead of a massive heart attack. But that’s how his demeanor is: He smiles and laughs easily, just happy to be here.

Dennis is fit, and strikes me at first glance as the kind of guy that works out every day and probably has some killer healthy salad recipes—that is, he does not look like someone that would suffer a heart attack while running on a trail. He isn’t overweight, diabetic, nor is he a smoker—which are a few of the warning signs associated with heart attacks. So what happened?


“Heart attacks run in my family. My grandmother passed away from a heart attack,” Dennis explains. “And my mom has had a quadruple bypass. It was going to happen at some point, but because I run and exercise quite a bit, that helped me survive the actual event. And I was young—I was 52.”

Dennis showed no initial symptoms of a heart attack, and other than having a busy lifestyle with moderate work stress, he didn’t have a clue that he would suffer such a major cardiac event—especially while training for a marathon. As it turns out, it was the perfect time for it to happen.

“If it hadn’t happened at that exact moment on the bridge, where EMTs could get to me quicker—I don’t think the outcome would have been as great. Time is of the essence. Every minute counts.” Dennis says that he’s lucky his friend knew CPR—without it he would likely not be here today. “If anyone takes any lessons from me, it’s learn CPR! It’s critical.”

I ask Dennis if he felt panicked afterwards about the possibility of not being able to run again. He shakes his head casually. “Not really panicked so much as concerned,” he says. His doctor told him to approach running cautiously, and the thought of not running didn’t cross his mind.

Dennis says he’s an “accidental runner,” and has been at it for about seven years. He’s always had a very active lifestyle and played volleyball and tennis—but his friend convinced him to sign up for Bay to Breakers in San Francisco. He didn’t plan to continue his running career after that, but after an arm injury prevented him from playing tennis—he kept running. Eight marathons and a couple of 30-, 40- and 50-mile races later—he definitely falls into the “runner” category, accidental or not. “I went from hating running to thinking, I kind of like this. I found that with running, you can surprise yourself as to what you can accomplish.”

Despite technically dying, Dennis hit the ground running (literally) a few weeks after his heart attack and started running again—along with his doctor’s guidance, of course. “I don’t like saying I was ‘dead’,” he says, “I joke that I was ‘deadish’—my friend told me that I had a ‘Hollywood heart attack.’ And now—I’m not as fast as I used to be, but I’ve adopted a different attitude; I do it for the love of running and to just have fun.”

Dennis also wasted no time trying to find a way to thank the first responders that saved his life on the trail. “I wanted to talk to the people that saved me—because I don’t remember any of it; I wanted to know whothose people were,” he says, “I know their job is to do that kind of thing every day and then they move on—but I wanted to find a way to thank them.”

After doing a little detective work, Dennis was able to locate the men and women that played crucial roles in saving his life—and he formally invited them to dinner. “I mailed out invitations and we had dinner here,” he says, pointing to the vacant corner of the restaurant surrounded by thick, red curtains. “And I wanted to give them something. I just didn’t know what I could possibly offer that would show my gratitude—there’s no manual out there that tells you how to say ‘Thank you for saving my life.’”

The responders were not only happy to join Dennis for dinner, but they were thanking him for the invitation. “One of them told me he’d never been thanked for anything before—not in 19 years of service—people just don’t do that,” he says, “and meanwhile I was thinking how I wish I could do so much more to show them how much their efforts meant to me.”

After being inspired by the puzzle-piece style running medals awarded to Ragnar Race relay team participants (which, of course, Dennis has run), he asked his artist friend to create a set of unique double-sided plaques that he arranged carefully in gift bags for each dinner guest. After each guest placed their plaque in front of them on the table—each depicting a piece of his heart with the blockage—Dennis recounted the events of that day as had been told to him. 

“I asked if I could ‘borrow’ each tile as I walked around the table telling the story,” he says. “They didn’t know there was a photo on the back of them. I was sneaky!” He carried the plaques, piece by piece, to the head of the table and flipped them over to slowly reveal the “surprise,” or the picture of his repaired heart, after the stent had been placed. Each tile had a message for the recipient:

Thank you for putting Humpty-Dumpty back together again, you’ll always have a piece of my heart.

Sometimes gratitude can give you goosebumps.

Dennis' Heart

Dennis' Heart Close Up

One thing that surprised me most about talking to Dennis was the fact that he doesn’t get the “runner’s high” that so many athletes claim to have (and I also admit to Dennis that I suffer the same). “I’ve never had it,” Dennis laughs, “I don’t even get a ‘runner’s happy!’” So what keeps him going?

“I play a lot of mental games,” he says, “and when my legs get tired I focus on swinging my arms—because your legs follow your arms. I never let myself think, Oh, I’m getting tired.” He also sings songs and listens to music. “It’s such a social event, too. It brings people together.”

Shortly after our interview, Dennis completed the California International Marathon. He says his training wasn’t as consistent as he’d wished, “But I went into it leisurely. I finished, so I consider that a win!” And most importantly, he had fun doing it.