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Emily Welker, Published January 21 2014

West Fargo 34-year-old survives massive heart attack while training for marathon

WEST FARGO – No matter how complicated your relationship with fitness is, it’s probably not as complicated as Justin Gress’.

The 34-year-old West Fargo man was nearly killed by exercise when, during an hour-long run on a treadmill, he was struck by a sudden heart attack that left him in a coma two Sundays ago, Jan. 12.

However, it was also that training regimen that may have helped save his life.

“If it was going to happen then, it was going to happen eventually,” Gress said.

Jill Weisenberger, who was at Snap Fitness in West Fargo working out at the time, said her husband, who was on the treadmill next to Gress, saw Gress step up his running pace just before he collapsed. At that point, Gress had been on the treadmill for nearly an hour.

“Anyone who can run on the treadmill for an hour has got to be in pretty good shape,” Weisenberger said. “Very much a fluke-type thing.”

Joy Loiseau was on the treadmill on the other side. She was feeling exhausted after a long day working at the hospital, and seeing her own red, sweaty face, glanced at Gress.

“I looked over for some dumb reason,” she said, “and saw he wasn’t sweating much.”

She turned away – and Gress went down.

What Weisenberger and Loiseau didn’t know, and what Gress is thankful to be around to describe today, is his history of drinking and smoking and his spotty relationship with exercise.

Gress said he first started running back in 2010, to do a 10K, but had fallen off his training routine afterward.

Weisenberger didn’t know this, but she did know heart attacks. She had worked with heart patients 25 years before in her long career as a nurse.

“If someone that’s in their 30s goes down,” Weisenberger said, “You’re thinking they’re not going to come out of it.”

Loiseau and Weisenberger at first thought it was a stroke. Then they realized Gress had no pulse and they began chest compressions, taking turns for more than 10 agonizing minutes to keep him alive while the ambulance was on its way.

Luckily, Loiseau, a speech pathologist, had taken CPR training before.

Meanwhile, another gym member stayed on the phone with the hospital, while a fourth went through Gress’ belongings, trying to see what medical conditions he might have.

“What happened to me – they call it a widow maker – the chances of making it are so slim,” said Gress, who doesn’t remember anything of the day. “I was clinically dead for 10 minutes.”

Erin Gress, Justin’s twin sister, said her brother’s doctors told her one of his arteries was 80 percent blocked. The run could have caused a piece of the blockage to break off, they said, but the running had also strengthened his heart, which helped him survive.

“He’s very healthy; he runs every day,” she said. “And it just wasn’t good enough.”

She said she’s already changed her diet and plans to quit smoking after seeing her brother dodge a bullet.

When her brother woke up, her mother had not left his side once, she said. When doctors brought him out of the medically induced coma, the first person he asked to see was his infant daughter, Ava, who was born Dec. 20.

Gress has been home since Jan. 17 – a mere five days after his heart attack.

He’s planning to start rehab soon, and he’s already talking about hitting the treadmill again, though he doubts he’ll be cleared by doctors to run in this year’s marathon as he’d hoped.

“I almost didn’t get to be a father to my little girl,” he said. “Every day, it’s another level of thankfulness you’re around.”

How to help

Justin Gress’ family is accepting donations to cover medical costs. To donate, go online to http://goo.gl/dOUS19

Readers can reach Forum reporter Emily Welker at (701) 241-5541