"I will praise the Lord according to his righteousness: and will sing praise to the name of the Lord most high." - Psalm 7:17.
Larry Wagner can relate to that Bible scripture. He has his own song of praise that resounds throughout his life following a near-fatal heart attack on July 6.
Wagner, senior pastor at Calhoun Baptist Church in St. Matthews, was a fit, 65-year-old who didn't smoke, use drugs or drink, nor did he have diabetes or hypertension.
There were absolutely no signs of the problems his heart would soon face as he was working in his backyard that evening.
His profuse sweating could easily be attributed to the searing heat that day, but the chest pains would not stop. Going into the house to get a drink and cool off didn’t help either -- even lying under a ceiling fan failed to bring Wagner relief.
The fact that he wasn't overweight and was in generally good health, couple with his dislike of visiting doctors, all contributed to his feeling of denial about whether he was actually having a heart attack. It couldn’t be, he thought.
When the crushing pain radiated up his neck to a tooth, Wagner realized that lying still with a towel hugged to his chest was no longer going to work.
He finally asked his wife, Marcia, to take him to the hospital, with the nearest facility to their St. Matthews home being the Regional Medical Center in Orangeburg.
Wagner’s left anterior descending artery, or LAD -- the main artery down the front of the heart -- was plugged, and he nearly fell victim of what is commonly known as the "Widow Maker."
“They say only about 8 percent of the people that ever have one of those live because they can’t get to the hospital, or they can’t get a stent in to open that blockage fast enough,” Wagner said.
He credits the emergency medical team at RMC for stabilizing him enough so he could be transferred to Providence Hospital in Columbia, where another dedicated team of medical professionals was awaiting him.
Wagner said he “complete flat line died” six times at RMC and each time was delivered an electrical shock that traveled through his chest wall to try to return his deteriorated heart to normal rhythm.
“It took them quite a while to get me stabilized. It must have taken them over an hour to get the medications to work and keep me from dying off so many times,” Wagner said, noting that Dr. Mark Zulkey, an emergency medicine doctor who worked on him at RMC that night, didn’t give up on him.
“He just kept trying and if it hadn’t been for him continuing to try, then I would have been dead. They would have pronounced me dead right there in Orangeburg,” he said.
Stormy weather in Columbia prevented what would have normally been a 14-minute helicopter ride to Providence. So, a private ambulance service was called to get Wagner where he needed to go. The clock was ticking.
Bryan Risner of Ontime Transport was called in to assist. Wagner said Risner was told, “We think you’re probably the only guy that’s gonna keep him alive to get to Columbia with all your experience.”
“Bryan was the one that said he’d never seen them shock anybody more than four times. That is where I feel very thankful to professional medical care people who not only know what they’re doing, but have a heart," Wagner said.
“For some reason, I think the Lord led (Dr. Zulkey) to try again. Instead of him giving up, I think there was something spiritual about the doctor and myself that the doctor felt like, ‘I just need to do this one more time,'" the pastor said.
“I just feel like God told that guy, ‘We’re not done yet; try him again,’ even though it was like beyond protocol."
Wagner’s oxygen-starved heart muscles had been in that condition for hours by the time he got to Providence, but he was thankful for the care Risner provided along the way.
“They hooked me up to the ambulance machinery, which would be oxygen … and all the IVs and everything, and said, ‘OK, take off and get him there as quick as you can.’ The communication is so good now that while we were on the road, Bryan’s giving all these reports to them, and he said for the first time ever when he arrived, he didn’t have to push a code on the button and wait for the door to open," he said, adding that Risner was not expecting him to survive.
Wagner was quickly whisked into the operating room.
“Bryan told me that there was a team of guys who were just all over the top of me and he told the doctor, ‘I got him here alive; now it’s your fault,’ because he really didn’t think I was going to make it,” the pastor said.
“Bryan said, ‘Your feet were moving but your heart had stopped, your breathing had stopped and now the last thing is your body is doing that last twitch before you’re completely gone.’ He said, ‘When I saw your feet twitching, I knew you were gone and not gonna make it,’ but I did,” Wagner said.
By the time he got to Providence, Marcia and some of their church members had already left and were doing a lot of praying for their beloved pastor.
“There was a lot of folks praying for us, a lot of folks from church as well as on Facebook and through email. Now you get people to pray for you from all around. There was an immediate huge burst of prayer power,” Wagner said, noting that many people had not expected him to have a near-fatal heart attack.
He had a lifesaving stent put into his heart at 9:30 p.m. on Thursday, July 6.
“My two children arrived at the ICU on Friday to sit, wait and pray while I was kept sedated. A day and a half after I died on a gurney, the time came Saturday morning for them to wake me up and begin to assess the long-term damage,” said Wagner, who was moved out of ICU and into a regular room on Sunday.
After undergoing a series of tests, he was released from the hospital on July 12 with very little damage to his heart. He considers himself a miracle and says God left him alive for a reason.
“As a preacher, I think the thing that I haven’t finished yet is I haven’t told enough people about the Lord. I haven’t finished my ministry of serving other people. There’s somebody left that I am still touching or changing,” said Wagner, who recalled other people he knew who had died of heart attacks.
“It gives you a real humbling feeling that the Lord kept me alive and if I’m still alive, then there has to be a reason. The Bible tells us that our days are numbered and that we ought to be using them well to serve the Lord and do what God would have us to do," he said.
“A lot of people don’t do that, but we should be … . If the Lord’s not done and we have something yet that we’re supposed to do, you can have a car wreck or a heart attack and the Lord’s gonna bring you through it because there’s still something to do."
Wagner said he and Risner have since talked at his home about his remarkable recovery, with Risner marveling at how far he’s come.
“He’s like, ‘Wow, how do you feel?’ I’m like, ‘I feel fine,’ and he says, ‘You don’t know how lucky you are.’ I said, ‘No, but I’ve been told that,'" the pastor said.
"Every doctor and nurse has told me, ‘I can’t believe you’re still alive.'"
Wagner's medicinal regimen has diminished considerably since his heart attack.
“I’m taking one little pill in the morning -- a baby aspirin and one pill. Then I talk a half a pill and another pill in the morning. So besides aspirin, I’m on three meds. Two of those will go away in about a month, and I’ll be on one pill and a baby aspirin most likely for the rest of my life,” he said.
Considering where he’s come from, “there’s nothing to that,” Wagner said.
He reiterated how grateful he is to the emergency medical staff at RMC for working to keep him alive.
“They didn’t say, ‘Well, sit here in the waiting room and we’ll be right with you,’ because I would have been dead on the floor," Wagner said. He said there is a message he stands behind and wants everyone to get.
“You don’t have as much time as you think. I was a strapping healthy guy working in the backyard. No one would have ever guessed in two days from the Fourth of July that I was gonna be dead. There was no indication of that," he said.
“Praise be to God himself. There really isn’t very much that has changed for me, but there should have been," Wagner said.
"I had a lot of unusual minor side effects that I had to figure out. But once you die a couple of times, it kind of throws your body for a loop."