14th of January 2012 / Serving Oregon & Southwest Washington since 1959

Aki Fleshler adds poster boy to resume

By SURA RUBENSTEIN

article created on: 2010-04-04T00:00:00

Aki Fleshler never thought he’d be a poster boy.

But now, the accomplished musician, computer engineer, martial arts teacher and observant Jew is towering over major Portland thoroughfares and covering the side of a downtown building.

How did this happen? “They asked me,” he explains. “And I did it because I thought my story might help someone else.”

That story is something of a miracle—a combination of preparation, mindfulness, timing, medical expertise and what Fleshler believes is divine providence. He had a massive heart attack when he was at his peak of physical fitness, got to the hospital at the right time, and now has been able to resume all his activities, including Aikido, the Japanese martial art he has been teaching in Portland for two decades.

Oregon Health & Science University, where Fleshler was treated, thought his story could encourage others with cardiac problems to get immediate help. Fleshler, who by his martial arts training as well as his personal and religious perspective, values modesty, agreed.

“The cardiologist asked me about it when I was still in ICU, the intensive care unit,” he says. Several months later, Fleshler was being interviewed, photographed, videotaped and featured in a variety of print ads, brochures, web pages, and, yes, those billboards.

“I emailed some of the rabbis and friends in the Jewish community to let them know this was coming, so they wouldn’t be shocked,” he said.

The billboards say: “Aki survived his heart attack thanks to OHSU—The only accredited chest pain center on Portland’s west side,” and feature Fleshler, in his martial arts uniform, or gi, looking out serenely.

“When I woke up, the doctors told me I had a very close call,” he said. “I realize how fortunate I was. I’m a survivor. I’m happy to be here.”

Fleshler, whose birthday is in January, was 60 years old when the heart attack occurred last July 2. He knew his family history made him a candidate for heart problems—his father died at the age of 40 from his first heart attack. He watched his diet, worked out and made sure his family’s finances would be in order if his heart gave out.

Physical fitness wasn’t the reason for his pursuing Aikido, but it did prepare him both physically and mentally. Now a 6th-degree black belt, Fleshler taught last summer at an international summer camp. When the attack came, he had been teaching for several hours at his dojo or school, Multnomah Aikikai.

“I walked off the mat, felt a little dizzy and a little weak,” he recalls. “I had a glass of water, a shower, and drank more water. I felt a crushing, heavy feeling in my chest, eased myself down to the sidewalk, took out my driver’s license and insurance card and stuck them in my pocket. My student called 911, and off we went.”

His heart stopped four times in the first 20 minutes he was at OHSU. The medical team had to start CPR when they were transferring him onto the table. “We had to shock his heart multiple times,” said Dr. Joaquin Cigarroa, a cardiologist on call that night.

Five days later, Fleshler walked out of the hospital. After completing a three-month cardiac rehabilitation program, he said an echocardiogram showed no trace of the heart damage.

“I think I’m a poster child for someone who did the right thing and didn’t hesitate,” he said. “I didn’t get scared, deny, or go home. I said, ‘This is happening; I need to get to the hospital now.’”

That is indeed the message that OHSU wants to get out, and is why the teaching hospital featured Fleshler in the first phase of a new advertising campaign.

“You should always come to your closest chest pain center,” said Kathy Dean, OHSU’s director of marketing. “Sometimes people don’t think about OHSU for that kind of care and we’re trying to let people know that we are here.”

The university leased four billboards in Portland’s west side and close-in east side, sent out a mailing to 15,000 households in the same area, and is planning to bring one of the 14-by 48-foot billboard images to the American Heart Association’s May 22 Heart Walk.

“I had as bad a first heart attack as you can have,” Fleshler said. “And I made a complete recovery.”

His advice to others?

“Do everything you can to manage your risk factors,” he said. “But also understand that this situation can come to anybody, just as lightning can strike out of nowhere. Know the symptoms and be prepared to deal with it calmly and expeditiously.”

And even though OHSU provided excellent and timely care, Fleshler believes there was another, essential factor in his survival. “It’s hashgacha pratis,” he said, “G-d’s supervision in detail. Everything had to fall into place exactly as it did in order for me to survive. Nothing the doctors and hospital did would have mattered without G-d’s supervision in detail. That’s how I see it.”

Go to www.ohsuhealth.com/chestpain to see a series of three short interviews with Aki Fleshler.

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