June 13, 2008 -- Tim Russert, the 58-year-old host of NBC's Meet the Press and NBC's Washington, D.C., bureau chief, died Friday of a sudden heart attack.
NBC News reports that Russert collapsed at work. After an autopsy, Russert's doctor, Michael Newman, MD, said cholesterol plaque ruptured in an artery, causing the heart attack. Newman also said the autopsy showed an enlarged heart.
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Various media reports are saying attempts were made at resuscitation at a nearby hospital, to no avail.
Russert had recently returned from vacation in Italy.
The symptoms of a heart attack include:
- Crushing, squeezing, or burning pain, pressure, or fullness in the center of the chest. The pain may radiate to the neck, one or both arms, the shoulders, or the jaw. The chest discomfort lasts more than a few minutes. It can diminish in intensity and return.
- Shortness of breath, dizziness
- Nausea, heartburn, or upset stomach
- Sweating or feeling "the chills"
- A weak, fast pulse
- An irregular heartbeat
- Cold, clammy skin, or a gray color to the face
- Fainting or loss of consciousness
When a heart attack strikes, people may not feel all of these symptoms. Some experience no symptoms -- this is called silent ischemia.
Women often have different symptoms of a heart attack than men. They may not experience chest pain but may have other symptoms, such as pain high in the abdomen or chest, or pain in the jaw, back, or neck.
These symptoms don't always indicate a heart attack, but don't wait to see if they pass. Call 911 immediately if you or someone else develops the possible warning signs of a heart attack.
WebMD spoke with Douglas Zipes, MD, past president of the American College of Cardiology and distinguished professor of medicine at Indiana University, about Russert's death. Zipes isn't one of Russert's doctors.
How common is it for someone at his age to suffer a fatal heart attack?
It's very common. First of all, we need to be careful about terms. What he had was sudden cardiac arrest. Now, whether it was due to a heart attack or not is unestablished. But more likely than not, it's due to this abnormal heart rhythm called ventricular fibrillation. That's when the bottom chamber [of the heart] beats at 400-600 times per minute, has no effective blood flow to the brain, you black out, and then, unless it's reversed, you die in three to five or seven minutes or so. This is the rhythm that's treated with an external defibrillator, and had one been available and used, it's certainly possible that he could have been resuscitated.
Now, ventricular fibrillation may be caused by a heart attack; it doesn't have to be. The likely scenario in a 58-year-old, slightly obese male is a coronary thrombosis -- an obstruction of a coronary artery -- that triggers the ventricular fibrillation and causes the sudden death.
It's common to use the term heart attack for any heart death. Is that correct in this case?
Exactly. That's what the press usually says -- he died of a "massive heart attack" and that massive heart attack is actually ventricular fibrillation. That's the cause of the sudden death, and it's important to distinguish this, because that's reversible with a shock.
The only other thing that NBC is reporting at this point is that he had recently returned from Italy.
It's likely unrelated. I've no idea how recently and whether [during] that eight-hour plane ride he sat still and developed blood clots in his legs and then had a massive pulmonary embolism [in which a blood clot travels to the lungs] once he got off the plane and was back at work. That's a much less likely scenario, but it does bring in the fact that he was recently in Italy.
What would you want people to know about lead-up symptoms or anything else people may need to be aware of or watching for?
Unfortunately -- and in a 58-year old male is typical -- sudden death may be the first manifestation of underlying heart disease. You die and that's the first manifestation of underlying heart disease.
Now, I have no idea of his medical history -- whether he had risk factors such as elevated cholesterol, diabetes, high blood pressure, whether he was a smoker off TV, and so on. But all of these risk factors would be very important. Was he sedentary, how stressful was his job, and so on. [Editor's note: NBC now reports that Russert had earlier been diagnosed with heart disease, but it was well controlled with medication and exercise, and he had performed well on a stress test in late April.
Is there anything else you would want to add?
I'd like to stress the fact that we need to have external defibrillators as common as fire extinguishers, so that when an event like this happens, a defibrillator is available and at least you can make an attempt to possibly save a life.