Barry Burch shares signs and symptoms he should have paid attention to, what led up to heart disease and what he’s doing moving forward
Barry Burch woke up on July 9 of this summer at about 5 a.m. to what he thought was a case of severe heartburn that had been plaguing him all night. The kind of heartburn that feels like a “stuck bubble” in your chest.
Being a retired U.S. Air Marshal now, at the age of only 52, he had time to spend with his mother, and his task for the day was to pick her up at her home in St. Paul for her cancer treatment appointment by 8:30 a.m.
The uncomfortable pressure in his chest wasn’t going away and continued even as he left his home that morning. To make matters worse, adding to the pressure building in his chest was an achy left shoulder that was steadily getting worse, though that in itself was not that unusual for him.
He popped an antacid to help alleviate the pain building in his chest. But no relief; the “bubble” pain was getting worse and worse with an occasional sharp spike of stabbing pain by the time he arrived at the clinic for his mom’s appointment. Upon arrival, he started to notice his heart beating intensely leaving him short of breath and clutching his chest.
His mother took notice, commenting that he didn’t look well and asking if he was okay. Barry assured her he was fine. It was just a bad case of heartburn. But inherently, his years of Marine and air marshal training told him otherwise. Heartburn didn’t come with cool, clammy skin, sweating, shortness of breath, dizziness, chest pain and an unsteady heart rate of around 54 (he knew because he checked it). It sounded like a drum in his ears.
By 9 a.m., he began getting dizzy spells and almost couldn’t make it outside to get fresh air or to find a pharmacy for more antacids. The chest pressure now turned to constant stabbing pain about every five to ten minutes, radiating into the left side of his rib cage.
By now, he was sweating, unable to breathe well with shoulder pain spreading into his neck.
One of the nurses in the clinic took notice of Barry gripping his chest, and within minutes, he was surrounded with nurses and a paramedic group hooking him up to a portable EKG machine informing him he was having a heart attack. Barry was in denial still with one clinician telling him, “Look buddy, I’ve been doing this for over 25 years, and I know a heart attack when I see one, and you, sir, are having a heart attack, so lay your butt down and let me do my job.”
His words broke through, and Barry began to comply. Nitroglycerin drops with a dose of aspirin were administered. Shortly, he was on his way to the emergency room at the University of Minnesota Medical Center hearing “code red” over the radio.
The diagnosis was an ST-segment elevation myocardial infarction, or a STEMI heart attack. This is the kind of heart attack people often die from or can cause permanent damage to the heart. Complete blockage in the coronary arteries disrupts blood flow to the heart.
However, this diagnosis didn’t come right away. Due to a complete left bundle block of his heart sending out incomplete information in the EKG, and because of his good physical condition and high pain tolerance, doctors weren’t sure of the severity of his heart attack and decided to wait for a team of specialists to see him in the morning.
But that night, he was still in terrible pain, even with a maximum dose of morphine drips and nitroglycerin. It felt as though the devil himself was gripping his heart and squeezing it. Around 1:30 a.m., a doctor came in and said she was forming an intervention team because she didn’t think he could wait until morning.
He was quickly wheeled to the operating room where he received an angioplasty procedure. Doctors found two completely blocked arteries and opened them up with stents. He was finally free from pain, mostly out of the woods and feeling grateful to Dr. Gutierrez and her decisive action which no doubt saved his life.
Looking back and looking forward
Doctors estimate Burch’s heart had a completely blocked artery since 2010.
That explained a lot.
In March of 2008, he failed his yearly federal air marshal physical because the examiner couldn’t read the EKG. He went through a year of doctor visits, scans and wearing monitors to track his occasional abnormal heart rhythms. But his career as an air marshal was on the line. He was close to retirement and didn’t want to lose it all.
A known fact among federal agents, one that Barry had seen over and over, was that if you are not well, you will be replaced. He refused to face such a fate. So he did his best to hide his condition and perform no matter what discomfort it caused. Those were painful years. He threw himself into working out hard to keep from failing his quarterly fitness assessments. All he had to do was run his tail off on the treadmill to convince the medical staff he was in great shape. And it worked. He made it to retirement.
In hindsight, he now knows why it was suddenly so hard to exercise, something he had never minded before, and why he gained 20 pounds, seemingly overnight.
For several years, he was in denial. Slowly, he was suffering from frequent short bouts of chest pain or discomfort that was blurred with the constant heartburn. He was often dealing with nausea, unexplained fatigue, shortness of breath and short bouts of dizziness. He also had occasional pain and discomfort in his left shoulder and upper left side of his back, along with neck pain. He didn’t know his heart wasn’t getting enough rich oxygenated blood whenever he was exerting himself. Sometimes it felt as if his heart was exploding out of his chest. Friends sometimes took notice and asked questions, but he always made excuses.
Looking back, he feels he foolishly ignored all the signs and silently lived and suffered with them. It also took an emotional toll on him. He lost interest in outdoor activities, sports, socializing, and even intimacy with his wife.
He knows it didn’t help that he was a smoker. Being a Vietmanese immigrant, born as Phuc Hong Bui, he grew up in a different world where tobacco was a major cash crop. He spent much of his younger years growing, watering, weeding, cutting, drying, stacking, and grading tobacco for the market. Smoking tobacco was part of his life since he was 13. His goal is now to quit completely, and he has enrolled in a major study program at the U of M in smoking cessation (PACES), along with taking Chantix to help him quit.
Stress has also played a role. A typical work day of 14 hours is common for U.S. air marshals. Sometimes it’s longer, often flying from Minneapolis to Tokyo, then to Washington D.C. and back to Minneapolis within the week. During times of national emergency, they often work themselves into exhaustion, eating and sleeping in four-hour increments wherever and whenever they can.
The week he had his heart attack, three other “brothers in blue” also suffered heart attacks. And one died. Two weeks later, another died.
One of his goals is to bring awareness to the death of many air marshals from heart disease, brain tumors or suicide.
But his advice to everyone, whether in a high stress job or otherwise, is to listen to your body and take symptoms seriously. Heart disease doesn’t always care what shape you’re in. He has seen air marshals who can run a marathon and, at a moment’s notice, suffer a heart attack. He advises those like himself to not be stubborn because if a heart attack doesn’t kill you, it may leave you in a less than desirable lifestyle, with loved ones also suffering alongside you.
He has never taken aspirin, but is now on a low dose of 81 mg per day for the rest of his life. Doctors told him they now understand that aspirin plays a major role in keeping people with heart disease from having a heart attack that doesn’t come with side effects.
Fast forward to now. Barry’s heart is getting stronger with a cardiac care team, and he is back to running 40 minutes, three times per week on the treadmill and teaching his gun safety and tactical training at his business, Burch Tactical.
Though his heart is showing signs of healing, it has sustained some damage, and besides feeling “bruised up,” it doesn’t beat quite normally to overcome the stiffness of the damaged areas. It feels like a fluttering or quivering which has been unnerving, especially at night when it’s quiet and he can’t sleep. But Barry is learning to live with a new normal each day.
Barry is now pushing his heart hard just like any other muscle and is feeling less pain than when he started. His heart output has improved from 40 percent to 50 percent capacity. He is hoping for an even higher percentage.
But he is staying aware of his limitations and is careful to bring any exertion slowly. He feels as long as he gives the healing process 100 percent, he can live with that.
The rest is “up to the power above his pay grade.”