MURFREESBORO, Tenn. — Lt. Gen. Keith Huber’s almost 40 years in the U.S. Army, including distinction as the longest-serving Green Beret when he retired in 2013, involved some life-threatening scenarios that he still can’t discuss.
But, as MTSU’s senior adviser for veterans and leadership initiatives prepared for the new year, he recently shared about what could have been a fatal heart attack last fall — and how he approaches life with renewed vigor.
“Of my other near-death experiences,” Huber said, “this one was the best — because I can talk about it.”
Huber described how he fell ill on the evening of Sept. 19 while attending a fundraising event hosted by country music great Charlie Daniels.
Daniels and his wife, Hazel, are the namesakes of the Veterans and Military Family Center that Huber helped create on the MTSU campus. Huber’s wife, Shelley, and MTSU President Sidney A. McPhee were with the general when the attack began.
As his Army career winded down, and into his retirement, Huber has lived with chronic spinal pain as a result of his combat duties and training.
But, on that night in downtown Nashville, Huber, 64, was feeling something sharper and harsher than he had experienced before.
“I was in pain, but I’ve been accustomed to trying to do pain management based upon surgeries I’ve had,” he said. “But this one caused me very considerable heart pain.”
He went to the men’s room, vomited and then, after composing himself, returned to the reception to find his wife and McPhee.
“I think I’m going to lose consciousness,” he told them, quietly. “We need to leave.”
Typical for Huber, he continued to soldier on, insisting that they go home, relieve the babysitter watching their 11-year-old daughter, Alexis, and allow him to change out of his uniform. They then rushed to Vanderbilt Medical Center.
“I had the next 90 days of my life laid out,” he said. “But then life grabbed a hold of me.”
Doctors examining the general found a contradiction: Huber, still very fit from his Army days, did not appear to be a typical heart attack patient.
“They said, ‘Hey, you look like you’re in great shape; what you are describing is a heart attack. I’m going to do a (cardiac) catheterization, but looking at you, I don’t think I’m going to find much,'” Huber recalled of those first moments at the hospital.
But what they did find were seven blockages. He said the one giving him the greatest pain, in his chest, was dubbed “the widow-maker.” It was a 97 percent blockage, all likely due to heredity.
“Your lifestyle can allow you to potentially survive opportunities like this, but it can’t change who your parents were or what your tendencies were,” Huber said.
The doctors told Huber that his “disciplined approach to physical fitness” allowed him to survive without heart damage. They inserted two stints and recommended triple-bypass surgery.
They initially suggested they do the surgery in a month. But after hearing a second opinion, Huber decided it would be done the next day.
The general said he drew upon the strength he witnessed by watching his wife in 2016 go through difficult surgery to repair a heart valve.
“I tell people this because it’s something that I can talk to my wife about, she’s got a frame of reference, that they had to stop her heart to repair it,” he said. “We have a comparison of something that is very difficult to describe if you haven’t been through it.”
Since his surgery, military colleagues from across the globe, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, have called Huber, expressing disbelief that the lean Green Beret had heart problems.
His advice to them, and all others who ask: Get a cardiac CT scan for coronary calcium, a non-invasive way of learning the location and extent of plaque in arteries.
Huber said he had three previous heart stress tests, all of which came back saying he had the heart of a 20-year-old. The stress test, he said, “will tell you that your heart is damaged, but it wouldn’t do anything to ID if there is restricted blood flow.”
The general’s recovery was quick and he returned to work at MTSU in early November. He said he decided to share his story to underscore his renewed passion for serving the university’s student veterans.
“I should have died the night of the 19th and my challenge now is to be worthy of every additional day I have been provided,” Huber said. “And this university, with its commitment to our veterans, allows me to make a contribution and to hopefully either inspire, or if necessary, bloody coerce other institutions to do what is the right thing.
“And the right thing is to provide comprehensive support to veterans in transition.”
Information from: The Daily News Journal, http://www.dnj.com