Monday, August 6, 2012

Sudden Death: The Widow Maker

I'm so excited to have Dr. David Carnahan joining Redwood's as a guest blogger because for a while now I've been wanting to do a series on those things that cause sudden death. When David sent his first hand experience with such a case, the infamous widow maker, I knew he'd be the perfect expert to blog on this topic.

Welcome, David!

It sounds like a name you’d give an advanced military weapon or a designer drug, but in the medical community, it refers to a scenario far too many Americans experience. In 2007, the United States had a little less than a million people present with a new heart attack; while over 400,000 died from Coronary Heart Disease.

The scariest statistic is that over 150,000 Americans died of cardiovascular disease who were less than 65 years of age.2 No matter how you slice it, Coronary Heart Disease has been the uncontested leading cause of death for many years, and the widow maker is a significant reason why.

Why is the widow maker especially dangerous?

It comes down to the anatomy. The blood vessels to the heart branch very early into the right and left coronary arteries. The primary purpose of these arteries is to feed nutrients and oxygen to the heart itself.

The right coronary artery is not as critical because it provides blood flow to the right side of the heart, which is the proverbial weakling who gets sand kicked in his face. Sure, it will hurt and cause damage, but nothing like the other side of the heart.

The left coronary artery starts as an artery we call the left main artery, but quickly divides into two other arteries: the left circumflex (not important to know), and the left anterior descending artery (also referred to as the ‘LAD’). If the left main or LAD arteries are blocked with cholesterol plaques and then a blood clot shows up, the patient could die in minutes.

You might be wondering why? How could these blockages cause the whole body to die?

It really comes down to a simple principle: without oxygen, every organ in the body will die. These arteries provide oxygenated blood to the left side of the heart, which pumps oxygen to the rest of the body. This makes this part of the heart crucial to your body’s survival. So, if the blockage kills the left side of the heart (a.k.a. the left ventricle) then the rest of your body will follow suit.

The scary thing about the widow maker is that there can be little warning that there is a problem. The press is full of examples of young, healthy people who suddenly die due to a blockage in these critical areas.

One striking example was Daryl Kile, a professional baseball pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals, who died at age 33 while resting before a game. The manager had to break down the hotel door when he wouldn’t answer his messages.3 Autopsy showed he had two arteries that were completely blocked – I’m betting one of them was the left main or the LAD.

Another recent example was Tim Russert of Meet the Press notoriety. He died at the age of 58 while working in preparation for another Sunday morning show. Despite having a colleague witness the collapse and immediately start CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) and having EMS arrive at the scene within 5 minutes of the 911 call, he was pronounced dead within an hour of his collapse.4

So, when you hear someone refer to a widow maker or when you plan to use it in your writing, the important thing to realize is that it is primarily a designation of the location of the blocked artery: usually the left main artery or a proximal LAD lesion. Though, it would be a cool name for a super secret military weapon.


1. Words that Harm, Words that Heal. [Interesting article about how doctors use language and why they may use the terms they use]

2. American Heart Association Statistical Update on Acute Myocardial Infarction.

3. Daryl Kile:

Dr. David Carnahan is a Board Certified Internist, who fell in love with writing while getting his Masters Degree in Epidemiology at the University of Pennsylvania. He has served in the Air Force for the past 14 years as an academic clinician/educator and now works in the area of Healthcare Informatics. He has a wonderful wife and two beautiful daughters, and invites you to read about his life (, and weekly installments of his current work in progress, The Perfect Flaw (


  1. David, excellent post about a common (and commonly misunderstood) situation. Glad to see you here at Medical Edge, and looking forward to perhaps meeting you at a conference in the future. (I'm a retired physician, former AF medical officer, and current novelist).

  2. Hi, Richard. I appreciate the comment. I look forward to contributing more in the future. You will appreciate the next two posts which outline an experience I had in Iraq. I've been working on craft for the past 5 years ... and am enjoying the process. Hopefully, I'll join your ranks in the future as a published novelist. Meanwhile, I'll keep writing and learning. BTW, I just purchased Medical Error and will be reading it next after I finish Jordyn's novel.

  3. David and Jordyn,

    First of all, Jordyn, you know how much I dig this blog. But you'll have to hear it again today. LOVE IT!

    David - thank you so much for your great contribution! I can't tell you both how timely this was. I just gave my lead's ex-boyfriend a heart attack and he stayed conscious and survived...must have been a right coronary artery blockage!

    It's tough playing God when it comes to messing with His creations, I tell you!

    Blessings to you both,

  4. Thanks Richard for lending support!

    Becky-- glad the piece was helpful and you're enjoying Redwood's!

    David-- truly is a great piece. Can't wait for your others to post.

  5. Becky, I'm glad this post was helpful. I just want to point out that the fact that your patient survived does not mean it was the Right Coronary Artery. It could be that the patient had a partial blockage of the LAD or the Left Main and they were able to break open the blockage in time. Or ... as you'll see in the posts to come ... there can be other factors come in to play. 8)

  6. Thank you for the article. I am a 43 yr old Deputy Sheriff and am 2 weeks out from my bypass.

    I thought i was catching pneumonia again, but my wife and boss made me go to the ER, which i found out i had a 95% blockage.

    i am recovering now, and would like to use this artical to encourage people to get checked, as this is something that NEVER went through my mind at 43.

    Thanks and keep up the good work.

    CD , in Missouri