Where the Heart Is

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This is a story about a man who woke up one day as Jamie Pollard,
the well-known Iowa State University athletics director, and through the course
of that day became Jamie Pollard, a human being with a broken heart.

By Carole Gieseke | Photos by Jim Heemstra

All of Cyclone Nation knows this story by now, of course: that Jamie Pollard suffered a heart attack while watching his daughters at a track meet at the University of Northern Iowa. Everyone knows he had open heart surgery. Everyone knows that he survived.

But peel back the layers, and this is a story about a man who is at peace with himself, a man who is a loving father and husband, a man who now, more than ever, feels at the epicenter of a warm, Cyclone embrace.

But let’s start at the beginning.

Pollard had an “off” day on Sunday, March 8. It was the beginning of the week of the Big 12 men’s basketball tournament. He’d been training for the Big 12 5K run in Kansas City all winter, and he’d been training hard. In fact, he says, he was in the best shape he’d been in in 15 years.

But Sunday’s training session wasn’t right. Pollard didn’t feel well. It was one of the worst runs of his life, he now says. He didn’t even finish. At the time, he chalked it up to a timing problem – he usually ran in the morning, but on Sunday he ran after dinner. So that was it.

Monday morning, March 9, dawned clear and cool. After a long, cold winter, it was finally starting to feel like spring in Iowa. Pollard had planned to work out this morning, but he still didn’t feel right. So he slept in. He thought maybe he was coming down with something.

Before heading to work, he spoke at an assembly at Gilbert High School – the school three of his four kids attended. Then he spent some time at his office in the Jacobson Building. He felt okay…not bad, but not great.

On his way out of town to watch daughters Annie and Maggie run in a track meet at UNI, he went through the drive-through of a fast-food restaurant in Ames: B-Bop’s. Pollard loves B-Bop’s, but he knows it isn’t the healthiest choice. He bought a double cheeseburger, French fries, and a chocolate malt and drove toward Cedar Falls.

By now it’s 4 o’clock, and Pollard arrives at Annie and Maggie’s track meet. He takes a seat in the front row on the back straight-away. He’s sitting by himself at the UNI-Dome; his wife, Ellen, is tied up with parent-teacher conferences back home.

Annie competes first: a 3,000-meter run. She finishes with a time of 11:57.67. Pollard calls Ellen and reports on Annie’s finish.

Annie joins him in the bleachers. They begin to talk about how her race went and about her upcoming mission trip in Nicaragua. She was going to be leaving that week.

“We had just started talking,” Pollard says. “I remember saying, ‘When you’re in Nicaragua you’re not going to able to run, but here are things you can…’ and I never finished the sentence. Because it HIT me and I told her, ‘I don’t feel good. Let me just sit here. I just need to sit here for a second.’ I thought it was indigestion. Somewhere in there, I said, ‘Oh, Mom’s going to be upset with me because I had a cheeseburger for lunch.’”

Before he could say another word, Pollard started getting cold sweats. He removed his sweatshirt and lay down on the bleachers. He asked Annie to get him some water. When she returned with water, Pollard sat up and took a drink. But he still had cold sweats and was becoming nauseated. He lay back down, and that’s when he knew something was really wrong.

When he lay down the second time, it felt like the bleachers were vibrating. Pollard was tingling from head to toe. That’s when Annie said, “Are you having a heart attack?”

Her dad responded, “I don’t know, but go get somebody.” She said, “Where do I go?” And right then, Pollard remembered that when he walked in to the UNI-Dome he had noticed where the training room was set up. He pointed: “The training room’s right over there.”

So Annie ran to the training room, and told the trainer that was on duty, “I think my dad’s having a heart attack.” The trainer called for the paramedics, and then went to Pollard and started asking him questions. The paramedics arrived within minutes.

In the midst of this life-or-death situation, Jamie Pollard remembers the goofiest things.

The paramedics wanted to carry Pollard out of the stands on a body board because the stretcher couldn’t go down the steps. Pollard refused – he didn’t want to be carried out on a board. He was embarrassed. What if people saw him? The paramedics insisted that they needed to get him to the ambulance so they could perform an EKG.

“I remember telling them, ‘If I get in the ambulance, can I get out of the ambulance? Because my car’s here, and I want to watch my daughter run.’ Because I’m still thinking that this is going to go away. I promised them I’d go see my doctor when I got home next week.”

The paramedic said, sure, you can get out of the ambulance. Pollard still refused to go out on a body board. He was determined to walk up the stairs. His chief reason for not wanting to be placed on the board was that he didn’t want to call attention to his situation. He was convinced at that point that he was still “incognito” in the front row. But, in fact, Pollard was already surrounded by three paramedics, two police officers, and various hangers-on. Everyone in that section – and probably in the entire UNI-Dome – already knew what was happening.

“I can laugh about that now,” Pollard says. “What was I thinking?”

He tried to walk up the stairs, but he couldn’t make it on his own. The paramedics helped him up to a stretcher at the top of the bleachers and wheeled him past the student-athletes and fans and out to the waiting ambulance.

By now, Pollard’s daughter Maggie knew the paramedics were tending to her dad.

“I was warming up to do my race and saw him carted away on a gurney,” Maggie remembers. “I ran my relay, but I didn’t do that well.”

When Pollard arrived at the ambulance, the paramedics performed an EKG and immediately said, “We have to take you to the hospital.”

At that point, Pollard called Ellen. She, of course, asked if she should meet him at the hospital, but he assured her that he was fine. Stay at the parent teacher conferences, he said.

“My biggest concern at that point was, well, now they’re taking me to the hospital. How am I going to get my car? I guess that’s a guy thing.”

Pollard had never ridden in an ambulance before. The siren was screaming, heading for the emergency room at Allen Hospital in Waterloo.

By now, Pollard was aware that he’d had a heart attack, but he didn’t know any details. Doctors told him that he needed to stay overnight. They told him they’d do an angiogram in the morning. Maybe, they told him, they’d need to implant a cardiac stent. Back home, Ellen is worried, but her husband has assured her that she should stay in Ames.

“Part of it was the way Jamie was handing it,” Ellen says. “I asked him if I should come, but he was nonchalant. He said they were just running tests.

“About an hour later, after I came out of the parent-teacher conferences, he told me they confirmed that he had a heart attack. He said they were going to make him spend the night, but he said I should stay with the kids and come in the morning.”

But their friends Connie (’84) and Roger (’80) Underwood, who live just down the street from the Pollards, called Ellen and offered to drive her to Waterloo. They arrived about 10:30 that night. Roger had recently experienced a heart attack himself.

In the emergency room, Roger walked Pollard through the procedure. Pollard was still thinking he’d probably get a stent and, instead of going to Kansas City for the Big 12 tournament on Wednesday, he’d go down on Thursday. Roger didn’t want to be the one to tell his friend that he probably wouldn’t be traveling any time soon.

Pollard’s condition worsened during the night. Early the next morning (Tuesday, March 10) they took him in for the angiogram.

During the procedure, Pollard was foggy but awake. He clearly remembers the experience.

“I will remember for the rest of my life the doctor saying, ‘I can’t help him. He needs triple bypass surgery.’ As soon as he said that, wow, I knew what that meant. That meant you’re getting cut open.”

The procedure would not be a simple one, as Pollard had hoped. The doctor performing the angiogram showed Pollard on the monitor where the interior of his artery had torn, causing the blockage. The condition is called an aortic dissection, and it’s serious business.

In an aortic dissection, blood seeps between the inner walls of the aorta, forcing a tear.

“I didn’t have a heart attack because I had heart disease like most people think of,” Pollard says.

The condition may be hereditary. Pollard’s father had a heart attack at age 57. Most likely, the disorder is aggravated by stress. According to the American Heart Association, the condition in men can be caused by extreme exertion such as isometric exercises, by heavy lifting, or by getting hit in the chest. In Pollard’s case, it may have been aggravated by his strenuous training for the Big 12 5K.

Surgeons at Allen Hospital were prepared to perform Pollard’s triple bypass surgery, but because of the doctors’ schedules, and because Pollard felt isolated being so far from home, he was uneasy about staying in Waterloo. He and Ellen conferred with a friend, David Stark (’94 management), who is president and CEO of Blank Children’s Hospital and executive vice president of UnityPoint Health in Des Moines.

“We just wanted to get his opinion,” Pollard said. “David said, ‘If it were me, I’d be here [in Des Moines] in a heartbeat.’ He said he could get a helicopter here in an hour.

“And here’s the end of that story,” Pollard continues. “David’s a great Iowa Stater. [My staff] brought me back a Big 12 championship hat and a piece of the net, and I gave it to David. Because he basically, from that point on, quarterbacked everything.”

So Pollard transferred to Iowa Methodist Hospital in Des Moines, riding in a helicopter for the first time in his life.

Which brings up another funny story. Well, funny now, but not so funny back in March.

One of the technicians overheard the Pollards’ discussion about transferring and told them that insurance probably wouldn’t cover the cost of the medevac helicopter. Pollard said he was “oblivious” to the cost, and Ellen’s response was, well, this is life or death and we don’t really care how much it costs. Days later, when the bill came and it was $54,999 – “Why don’t they round it off?” he jokes – Pollard thought, thank heavens somebody didn’t tell me that on the front end, because Cheap Jamie would have said no, it’s not worth it!

Once in the helicopter, Pollard jokingly asked the pilot to swing by Jack Trice Stadium to see how the construction project was coming along. But all he got to see, he says, was the ceiling of the helicopter.

When they landed at Iowa Methodist, David Stark was waiting on the heliport with the surgeon. The surgeon said, “We’re going in right away. This is an emergency. If we wait, your heart could be damaged.”

Pollard was surprised. He was expecting the surgery to take place on Thursday or Friday. Today was Tuesday. Ellen wasn’t here yet. Pollard had suggested that she stop at home and check on the kids because there wasn’t any need to rush.

Stark took control. He said to get Pollard ready for surgery; he would call Ellen and tell her to come to the hospital immediately.

Pollard had about a 15-minute window after he was prepped for surgery but waiting for Ellen to arrive.

This is the first time Pollard becomes emotional in the retelling of this story. He has to take a brief break to regain his composure.

“It’s a lot to digest,” he says after a few moments. “If you’d given me those facts ahead of time: heart attack, you’re lying on the operating table, you’re going to have 15 minutes waiting for your wife to get there, and you don’t know what’s going to happen – I would have bet anything that I would have been scared beyond belief. And ironically, I wasn’t. I was in a really good place. I remember thinking I may never see my kids again. I’m going to see Ellen. And I remember looking at the people above me, thinking this nurse may be the last person I see. I remember her asking me, ‘Do you have any last wishes before you go into surgery?’ And this has become a standing joke, because I said, ‘I really fancy orange Gatorade.’ She said she’d make sure there would be an orange Gatorade waiting for me when I got out of surgery.”

Ellen arrived at the hospital and rushed to her husband’s side. She said goodbye before Pollard was wheeled into the operating room. It was 6 o’clock on Tuesday evening.

The surgery lasted six hours. But Pollard doesn’t remember anything until 1 o’clock on Wednesday afternoon when he woke up in the intensive care unit. He stayed in ICU until Thursday, when he was moved into a regular room.

On Thursday night, a heavily medicated Pollard watched the Cyclone men’s basketball team beat Texas 69-67 in the Big 12 tournament, a comeback game that nearly gave the Cyclone faithful heart attacks of their own.

At one point, with the Cyclones down by as many as 16 points, Pollard told Ellen, who was pacing the hospital room floor in frustration, “Hon, sometimes it’s just not meant to be.” And she looked at him incredulously and said, “Who ARE you??”

On Saturday morning, senior associate athletics director for communications Steve Malchow and an ISU athletics video crew came to the hospital and filmed a message from Pollard. The message was played on the big screen Saturday afternoon at the KC Power & Light District, where thousands of Cyclone fans had gathered.

In the video, Pollard is wearing an Iowa State baseball cap and a hospital gown that clearly reveals his surgical scar. In a weak voice, he says, “Hey, Cyclone fans. I really wish I could be at the Power and Light District this afternoon and the Sprint Center tonight. Although I can’t be there physically, I will be there emotionally. Thank you so much for all your thoughts and prayers. I will be back. Go, Cyclones.”

The fans went crazy.

Later that night, the Cyclones won the championship with another heart-stopping comeback victory against Kansas, 70-66.

Then-head coach Fred Hoiberg (’95 finance) spoke to the media after the game. “This was a great week for us, for Jamie Pollard. This is a win for him, and I know it was a stressful three days, but the end result I think was great for Jamie and his therapy,” Hoiberg said. “He’s the best; he’s a great guy to work for, a great boss. And to win this one for him is really a special moment.”

Pollard has seen the footage of his video being played on the big screen. He’s seen the crowd’s reaction. And he’s seen footage that shows that, at one point during the championship game, the crowd begins to spontaneously chant: JAMIE! POLLARD! CLAP/CLAP/CLAP/CLAP/CLAP/CLAP.

It’s emotional for him to talk about it.

“It was really cool when they were chanting my name,” he says, pausing to regain his composure. “It reinforced why I love being here.”

Pollard is released from the hospital on Sunday, March 15. For a week, he recovers at home and then begins cardiac rehabilitation.

The rehab is three times a week, consisting of walking, then running, plus educational sessions on stress management, diet, and the biomechanics of the heart. He progressed from walking tenuously for six minutes, carefully holding his chest out of fear of additional trauma, to carefully running on the treadmill.

Four weeks after his heart attack, Pollard returned to work a little bit at a time. His return to work was gradual to ensure he didn’t over-do things.

Coming in to the office wasn’t for the staff, he says; it was for him to have something to do. David Harris, senior associate athletics director for student services, was serving as interim athletics director, and Pollard said he did a wonderful job, as did all the senior staff and the entire department during what was a very busy time for Athletics.

“I always say, ‘Judge an organization’s strength not in good times but during adversity.’ And that proved our organization was pretty solid, because they didn’t miss a heartbeat, no pun intended.”

At the six-week mark, Pollard was able to drive a car again, which gave him tremendous freedom. He returned to full-time work on April 27.

The month of May was hectic, with Big 12 meetings and Cyclone Tailgate Tour stops to attend and the ongoing facilities construction to oversee. By the end of the month, he’d lose Hoiberg as head men’s basketball coach and work to replace him by eventual new head coach Steve Prohm. But he made it through all of that, and his life slowly settled back to normal.

Now that Pollard can view his experience in the rear-view mirror, everything becomes clear.

We’re talking in his large, sunny Jacobson Building office that overlooks Jack Trice Stadium. It’s a bright day in early July, and the stadium’s south end zone construction is nearly completed. Pollard’s office was gutted during the time he was sick; his things are still in boxes, and nothing is up on the walls.

“I’m an anal person, so not having the stuff up in my office is not good. But I just had to let that go,” he says, looking around his colorful but barren office. “Maybe I’ll get to it this weekend.”

Pollard’s health crisis changed his life in so many ways, but two things stand out above the rest: his love for his family and his loyalty to Iowa State.

“I think the Iowa State piece is, you pour your heart into it. You’re in a public position that comes with a ton of criticism and a ton of, you know, everybody can do your job better than you, and they don’t have a problem telling you that every single day. And so everything we do is so public, and it can be hard. So you think about having to deal with a health issue like this: It’s in the public.”

In the days following his heart attack, Pollard received 682 texts and 824 emails. Those are key numbers when you think about the support he received from his friends, Cyclone fans, and colleagues.

“Those texts and emails were just a reminder of why it’s pretty neat to work at Iowa State and live in this community. And maybe it takes moments like this to really appreciate it. There were many days [before the heart attack] when you’d go, ‘You know what? These people just don’t understand.’ So it was just good to know that people care. We love living here. I’m glad I live here. It just hit me that this is why I’m supposed to be here.”

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And then there’s Ellen and their four kids: Thomas (an all-American track athlete and recent Gilbert High School grad who’s enrolled at Iowa State this fall), Annie (a high-school senior), Maggie (a high-school sophomore), and James (a seventh grader). Pollard asks himself: What if I didn’t make it? What if I wasn’t there for them?

“I’ve had emotional times,” he says. “At Thomas’s baccalaureate at Gilbert…it just hit me: Wow, I wouldn’t have been here. This would have been so different for our family. Now, I joke about it…but yeah, there are times when you just kind of go, ‘What would it have been like for our family?’ Because I wouldn’t be here.”

If there’s one person Pollard gets choked up about, it’s his daughter Annie. Annie, who was by his side when he had the heart attack. Annie, who ran for help. Annie, who spent a week in Nicaragua with no cell-phone service and no wi-fi, unable to get information about her dad’s condition in the days after his surgery.

Annie is the one, her dad says, that you want by your side during a crisis. She never lost her composure.

An article in the Ames Tribune calls Annie a hero. But she is clearly uncomfortable with all the attention she’s received.

“I just did what I was told to do,” she says, shrugging her shoulders. “I could tell he didn’t look well. I knew something wasn’t right.”

Pollard says it’s become a standing joke: “I call Annie ‘The Rock’ now, and she absolutely HATES it. But it’s a bond she and I are always going to have.”

Pollard looks back on the day he had the heart attack and is so grateful that the sequence of events played out the way they did.

“The teachers at Gilbert say, ‘Thank heaven it didn’t happen when you were speaking to the students. Or worse, if it happened when you were in the car [on the way to Cedar Falls].’ Knowing me, I would have probably laid down in the back of the car. I was thinking if I’d just lay down it would get better. The thought of calling 911 wouldn’t have even been on my radar screen.”

Pollard thinks about the stress of his job, and how it could have contributed to his heart condition.

“People tell me I have a stressful job. My job’s no more stressful than other people’s; it’s more of how you process your stress,” he says. “I’m type AAA – triple A. That’s something I need to change…well, you can’t really change, but at least I’m more aware of it. I’ve acknowledged it, and I think that’s healthy.”

Here’s one last thing that’s really important to Jamie Pollard: his faith. It’s that faith, he says, that got him through the 15 minutes when he was waiting for Ellen to come to the hospital before he went into surgery.

For two years, Pollard has been a part of a men’s group at Cornerstone Church in Ames. The group meets at 6 o’clock on Thursday mornings. He goes every Thursday, even in the winter when it’s dark and cold. Even when he wants to sleep in. He’s always glad that he goes.

“When I think back to that 15 minutes when I was waiting and had to collect my thoughts, I was at peace,” he says. “And I was at peace because I’d already done my work. I’d put in my time with my faith so that when I needed my faith it was there for me without me having to worry. And I owe that to that men’s group, because it better prepared me for the fact that we’re all mortal.”

Heart attack symptoms:Know what’s a medical emergency

Typical heart attack symptoms
• Chest discomfort or pain: This discomfort or pain can feel like a tight ache, pressure, fullness, or squeezing in your chest lasting more than a few minutes. This discomfort may come and go.
• Upper body pain: Pain or discomfort may spread beyond your chest to your shoulders, arms, back, neck, teeth, or jaw. You may have upper body pain with no chest discomfort.
• Stomach pain: Pain may extend downward into your abdominal area and may feel like heartburn.
• Shortness of breath: You may pant for breath or try to take in deep breaths. This often occurs before you develop chest discomfort, or you may not experience any chest discomfort.
• Anxiety: You may feel a sense of doom or feel as if you’re having a panic attack for no apparent reason.
• Lightheadedness: In addition to chest pressure, you may feel dizzy or feel like you might pass out.
• Sweating: You may suddenly break into a sweat with cold, clammy skin.
• Nausea and vomiting: You may feel sick to your stomach or vomit.

Most heart attacks begin with subtle symptoms – with only discomfort that often is not described as pain. The chest discomfort may come and go. Don’t be tempted to downplay your symptoms or brush them off as indigestion or anxiety.

Don’t “tough out” heart attack symptoms for more than five minutes. Call 911 or other emergency medical services for help.

If you don’t have access to emergency medical services, have someone drive you to the nearest hospital. Drive yourself only as a last resort, if there are absolutely no other options.

Heart attack symptoms vary widely. For instance, you may have only minor chest discomfort while someone else has excruciating pain. One thing applies to everyone, though: If you suspect you’re having a heart attack, call for emergency medical help immediately.

Source: Reprinted from the MayoClinic.com article “Heart attack symptoms: Know what’s a medical emergency.” © Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. All rights reserved.

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One thought on “Where the Heart Is

  1. I enjoyed the story of all your experiences concerning your heart attack and subsequent surgery. On March 25, 2015 I also had surgery only mine involved a little more work than yours. Aortic valve replacement, ascending aortic aneurysm repair and three bypasses. Fortunately I had the same surgeon you did, Chris Komanapallli. What a blessing to have this man operate on me. I spent 12 days in the hospital and another two weeks in a post surgery facility and then I started my cardiac rehab. I know genetics played a part in my disease because my father died at age 44 of a heart attack, although his lifestyle probably contributed more to his disease. It was also 1960 when the treatment for heart disease was to rest. Thanks again for your story.

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