When a watch does more than track your workout — it saves a life

CHICAGO — Watches tell time and give your location, and they can save lives, but only if you trust your technology.

Tom Elliott resisted the warning from his wearable device, but he lives to tell the story of how his time could have been up until his watch gave him a wake-up call.

Elliott is a regular at his local Orange Theory fitness studio. Like all participants, the 48-year-old wears a class-issued heart monitor, and he always wears his own device – a Garmin watch.

 “I was on the treadmill jogging at like a base pace, and all of a sudden, I look on my watch and my heart rate’s like 172 beats per minute, which is near maximum,” Elliot said.

As he slowed his pace, his heart rate should have dropped to about 125. But it didn’t budge. A summary of his workout shows Tom’s heart rate stayed in the danger zone.

“I was asymptomatic,” he said. “I wasn’t dizzy. I wasn’t out of breath. I felt fine. I felt normal, so I continued to do rowing exercises, burpees and push-ups and things even when it still said 170.”

When he got home, he tried to troubleshoot his watch and even called the Garmin customer support line.

“I tried a new battery and it still read 170 beats per minute," he said.

He tried his wife’s watch and an electronic blood pressure cuff and both gave him the same reading of 170 beats per minute. That’s when he called his mom, who just happens to be a retired cardiac care nurse.

“I explained to her everything that happened that day, and she said, ‘Can you feel your pulse?’” Elliot said.  “I reached for my pulse, I couldn’t find it. She goes, ‘Tommy, you have to get to the ER.’”

In the emergency room at Northwest Community Hospital, tests revealed Elliot was in ventricular tachycardia, the electrical signals in his heart had suddenly malfunctioned. As a result, the chambers were beating too fast and out of sync. Elliot was sedated and his heart was shocked back into normal rhythm.

Then cardiologist Dr. Ankit Shah delivered some surprising news.

“We used the paddles, the good old paddles you see on television, and they converted his rhythm into a normal rhythm,” Shah said. “He had a heart attack that happened probably a week prior to the heart rhythm problem occurring. He had no idea, and, unfortunately we call these silent heart attacks.”

There was no chest pressure, no pain, but there was a total blockage in one of the major arteries. The lack of blood flow had already damaged his heart muscle, so when Elliot pushed himself during the workout, his weakened heart couldn’t keep up.

“It’s still hard to say I had a heart attack just because I was asymptomatic,” he said. “That was the last thing I was worried about.”

Now he has an implantable cardiac defibrillator that will automatically shock his heart back into rhythm if he has another sudden episode. After completing 12 weeks of cardiac rehab, Elliot made some lifestyle changes.  He quit smoking and resumed his usual workouts, still wearing the device that likely saved his life.

“Exercise, diet and, of course, my trusty Garmin watch,” he said.

A company rep from Garmin said they regularly hear from customers who share stories about the life-saving impact their watch had on their life. And now Apple offers an app that gives you an EKG reading with just the touch of your fingertips.

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