After a massive heart attack, Inquirer sports editor survived '8 days in hell'

The Quinn family (from left: Jack, 15, John, and Amy) have a laugh at lunch together at their home on Jan. 6, 2017.

Editor's note: Former Inquirer sports editor John Quinn almost didn't make it after a massive heart attack literally tore a hole in his heart. A year later, he shares his experience.

Forget about those life-after-death, out-of-body, hovering-over-your-carcass images.

Nope, it is cold, lifeless, like staring at the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

It is space but no time. It is dreaming and weightlessness. It is clarity of mind, no judgment, no worries, and no emotions.

It is the on-deck circle without waiting to bat.

It is high-definition, but almost devoid of color, just a fade to black and white. A sharp, knifelike black-and-white with maybe a little chrome on the edges.

There is no pressure, no anxiety.

I have been there before, in what I took as dreams. It was déjà vu in reverse. I was there before but my earlier perceptions were also timeless. Precursors but out of order.

The hospital bed was just a stretcher away from the casket. Praying for the health of my body before praying for the salvation of my soul.

I am told I did move my eyes in response to questions. I do not remember. My sister said at one point I had 27 tubes or needles in me. Had to be strapped down to keep from jarring the myriad conjunctions. Had to have an ICU nurse 24/7. Had the ECMO machine pump the blood to allow the heart to recover before surgery.

I did not feel them crack my chest and power-saw my rib cage. So you can imagine the power of the drugs flowing through those tubes.

No pain. No feelings. Limbo without the connotation. Like being in a math equation, logical, step by step, with no beginning or end. Not knowing if you were waiting for the train, riding the train, or exiting the train.

At one point, the surgeon said I awakened and said quite emphatically: "I am not going to die!"

Now it is very rare to be in this position, to be this real, this raw, facing death.

My primary care physician said I was at the Gates of Hell.

One cardiologist said I was at death's door.

I thought you were a goner, said the ob-gyn who intubated me and did compressions on my chest, riding me like a bronco at a rodeo. She is a giant of a petite Irish woman, who just happens to be the mother of one of my son's best friends. And happened to be in the hospital at 2 in the morning and decided to check on me. And then proceeded to save my life. (If you are going to go into cardiac arrest, do it in a hospital.)

With each sentence came a look unseen from anyone outside the health profession. These pros would end each conversation with the Stare. After basically waves of gratitude and love, these looks were quite unnerving because they momentarily opened up the window of harsh reality.

Basically: How are you still alive? And then another fleeting feeling: Are you defying reality? Who are you, because the other guy who was in this body had to be dead.

And yet, for me, it felt quite the opposite. My mind was in the same place as before when I crashed in the doctor's office, ashen and motionless. Hit the fast-forward button. Hi, I am here.

What are these tubes and catheters doing in me and when can I get a corned beef sandwich and by the way, I still have Christmas shopping to do.

Again, it was the eyes, of family and friends, incredulously lightened, almost translucent. Like tears had diluted the colors yet added a glisten or two.

And the friends poured in, from every aspect of my life over the past 40 years.

This is your life, John Quinn. But why? Is this a virtual reality, 3D obituary?

There would be no clear answers right away. Daytime was strawberries and cream. Nighttime was the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. I began hallucinating almost on cue after the last visitor left. We are talking trying to use an iPhone that felt like a Rubik's Cube.

Wheel of Fortune blended in with the Megamillion Power Ball, with each contestant swimming through the pool of letters while trying to solve an algorithm of highest percentage of numbers to use and in what sequence. And that was before the curtains would rearrange themselves before my very eyes.

Watched Alabama play Clemson for the national championship but could only remember the onside kick and it looked more to me like a rugby scrum. The touchdowns were fast and furious, the game could have been live or on tape. It was in hyper speed and felt like playing electric football with no sound. It was all muted.

Yet, as strange as it seemed, it was not surreal at all. In fact, the absurdity seemed quite normal. Every minute of every day seemed just right in my eventual path to recovery.   

Learning to walk again and continued trusting in the development of the dormant muscles. No bedsores, despite being on my backside for hours each day. Again, thank you, God and everyone's prayers. 

There would be speech therapy, swallow therapy, occupational and physical therapy, and smiles from nurses and cleaning people, transporters, and food-delivery personnel. It was like, I got the live wires and it was all good.

It all morphed into an ever-changing reality, one hour at a time. And I saw my son, who was 14 when all this began, grow up right before my eyes.

Before my surgery, he asked the surgeon quite emphatically: "Is my father going to die?" And the doctor had to be honest, which meant, basically: "I don't know."

So it became real way beyond what it was before, which was ice-cold real. There would be no cheering, no banter. It was pray, cry, and believe with every ounce.

The word got out so much that I trended on Twitter.

The surgeon, a gentle hulk of a man who played offensive line at Duke but rooted for Auburn, was indeed happy when the deed was done. He performed the physical miracle; the entourage brought it home spiritually. And I took the stick handoff on the edge of forever and brought it home.

And now it is one year later. The odds were exponentially astronomical. Most of the physical realities of the eight days in hell will be kept locked away until someone wants me to know. And I am OK with that.

You take the second chance for as long as it lasts. Medication, exercise, love, and friendship.

My cardiologist sees me at a visit and rushes to give me a hug, spontaneous and uninhibited. "Do you feel as good as you look?"

Yes.

The back story: John Quinn, then 61, was at his doctor's office for the second time in a week in December 2015, feeling exhausted and out of sorts. As his wife, Amy, filled out forms at the reception desk, he suddenly turned ashen and grabbed his chest. 

It was a massive heart attack.

Quinn was attended by paramedics in the doctor's office, then rushed by ambulance to Inspira Medical Center Woodbury. Along the way, he twice went into cardiac arrest and paramedics revived him with defibrillator paddles.

At the hospital, doctors put a stent in his right coronary artery and a pump in his aorta. Things looked good at first, but early the next morning, he went into cardiac distress, his lungs filling with fluid from his failing heart. He was revived yet again.

Physicians determined the heart attack had caused a ventricular septal rupture — an uncommon, often fatal, tear in the wall separating the heart's lower chambers. He was transferred to Penn Presbyterian Medical Center for open-heart surgery to have it repaired, though first he spent a week hooked up to life-support.

Quinn went home in mid-February, after 53 days in the hospital, and seemed to be recovering. Then in late April, he needed to go back to Penn Presbyterian to have a pacemaker defibrillator implanted. From his bed, he watched the Broad Street Run — a race in which he had hoped to compete. Instead, he saw colleagues run in T-shirts printed with his name.

A year after the initial heart attack, Quinn is doing so well, he recently walked seven miles in one day with his son, Jack.