One moment, Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office Patrolman Michael Pickering was in pursuit of a suspect. A few minutes later, he was in the back of an ambulance, on his way to Shands Jacksonville Medical Center.
It was Jan. 20, when Pickering felt a pain in the center of his chest during the chase and called for paramedics.
Now on the stretcher, Pickering, 50, felt tired. He wanted to close his eyes—just for a minute.
“Clear! Hit him again,” the rescue worker yelled.
In the time between feeling tired and hearing those words, Pickering was going into cardiac sudden death. As he would later find out, his heart was beating irregularly and then stopped beating effectively.
After paramedics resuscitated him, Pickering picked up his cell phone to call his wife, a communications director at the Clay County Sheriff’s Office.
They had an agreement. If one of them got hurt and was able, he or she needed to call the other person. The couple, married 10 years, didn’t want to find out through a knock on the door that something was wrong.
Pickering wasn’t going to break that agreement — not even because of a heart attack. Though someone else had gotten to his wife before he was able to, Pickering was able to talk to her coworkers to explain what was happening.
“He was still on his cell phone when he was wheeled into the emergency department. He was taken for tests that showed he was in the process of having a heart attack,” said Theodore Bass, MD, chief of the division of cardiology at the University of Florida College of Medicine–Jacksonville and medical director of the Shands Jacksonville Cardiovascular Center.
Both of Pickering’s parents died after having heart attacks, but they had been heavy smokers.
But Pickering didn’t smoke, he wasn’t a drinker and he was in good shape. And during his 29 years as a member of the sheriff’s office, Pickering was given annual exams. He’d passed the latest exam just a few months earlier.
Then in January, Pickering was working an assignment on Jacksonville’s Northside when another officer asked for backup. Pickering responded.
He was chasing a shoplifting subject into a wooded area when he started to feel the pain in his chest.
It must have been the Mexican food he’d eaten earlier that day, he thought. But just to be safe, as other officers continued to chase the suspect, he headed back to his truck, parked alongside Lem Turner Road.
He called for an ambulance, though he never said it was for himself. He took off his vest, locked his gun away and waited.
“I thought for sure rescue was going to get there, check me out and say it was nothing,” he said. But it was something.
Just a few minutes after Pickering’s wife got to the hospital, Bass came out to speak with her.
Pickering had a heart attack in the bottom wall of his heart. Through a radial artery entry in his right wrist, doctors were able to thread catheters in to take pictures, open the completely blocked right coronary vessel and put in a stent, Bass said.
“His symptoms got better,” Bass said later. “We were fortunately able to significantly limit the size of his heart attack.”
At Shands Jacksonville, doctors routinely use the radial approach instead of the traditional femoral approach, which goes through an artery in the groin. Bass said the radial approach is preferred because there aren’t as many bleeding complications, but not all doctors in Northeast Florida have been trained to use it.
Within a few weeks, doctors put a stent in another of Pickering’s arteries to fix a light blockage in the front wall of his heart.
He was so happy with his care that when workers’ compensation officials asked him to switch to a different doctor at a different hospital, he declined.
“Dr. Bass, I love that guy,” Pickering said. “He puts it in layman’s terms.”
He said he owes a debt of gratitude to the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue personnel, Shands Jacksonville employees and UF doctors who saved his life and took care of him during his recovery.
It isn’t clear what caused Pickering’s heart problems. Middle age men in the United States often have risk factors because of their diet and lifestyle. But for Pickering, it was his history that likely played a bigger role.
“No matter what he did, he was born with a gene pool that put him at increased risk,” Bass said.
Bass stressed that all people should be careful to control such risk factors as hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol and stress and stay away from tobacco.
Today, Pickering is done with cardiac rehabilitation. He was back at work on April 12.
And then eight days later—three months to the day of his heart attack—the father of three had another important job.
He gave his daughter Kerri away at her wedding.
“I had tears in my eyes as we were walking down the aisle,” he said.
It was a day he told himself he’d never miss. And he didn’t.