As the Aero Med helicopter raced the clock to provide him life-saving care, Chuck Zarkis found peace.
“The last eight minutes of the flight, I went through my ‘come to Jesus’ meeting,” he said, his voice breaking with emotion months after the incident.
The helicopter had rushed Chuck to Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital after he suffered a serious heart attack while deer hunting.
It happened Oct. 30, 2020, in Lake County, Michigan.
There’d been no time for an ambulance ride.
The helicopter roared toward Grand Rapids and Chuck pleaded with God.
“In the beginning it was the typical, ‘Please let me survive this thing,'” Chuck said. “And then after a couple of minutes of praying, it was more like, ‘Hey, I’m accepting this and I’m trusting whatever you do.’
“Once I accepted the fact and said, ‘I’m in your hands,’ I was totally at ease,” he said. “Perfectly at ease, relaxed, just watching the lights go by.”
Soon the flight crew paramedics told him they’d be landing.
“They said, ‘Thirty seconds until we land,’ and I could see two people standing on the rooftop,” Chuck said. “And I thought, ‘I’m not going to die today. It’s going to be a good day.’”
The buck lived, too
Less than two hours earlier, Chuck, an avid bow hunter, had been in his deer blind near his someday retirement home between the towns of Luther and Leroy.
It seemed like a good day to bag a trophy buck.
Chuck’s wife, Sandy, who’d been out walking nearby, had called him on his phone and said she kicked up a huge buck—and it should be headed his way.
At about the same time as that phone call, Chuck experienced a “massive headache” that came on suddenly.
Minutes later, the headache subsided.
Chuck, tucked into his deer blind, then watched as the 10-point buck approached.
“The deer was walking in and I opened the window and I started to draw my bow, it’s going to be a 20-yard shot, a picture-perfect pop shot—and the window blows shut while I’m at full draw,” he said laughing.
He opened the window and moved to get in position. The window blew shut again.
The deer started moving.
“I shut the heater off and, as I went to open a different window, my broadhead arrow got stuck in the grate of the heater,” he said. “So now I get all set, got the window open and go to lean out—and the deer is gone.”
“All the noise … I don’t know where he went, but he’s gone.”
Chuck sat down and felt an adrenaline rush.
He had missed his chance at the buck.
About 20 minutes later, sometime between 5:30-6 p.m., the heart attack hit.
‘Come get me’
“I had the classic chest pain and arm pain,” he said. “And I’m like, there’s no way I’m having a heart attack.”
Given his family history of high cholesterol, he had recently had a CT scan—and everything came back good.
Chuck, 57, had his doubts it was a heart attack. But then he started to look up heart attack symptoms on his phone.
“After two to three minutes it went away,” he said. “So I’m like, ‘OK, no big deal.’ But then the second wave came and then it was like, ‘Holy cow.’ Now it feels like a tractor is parked on me.”
The pain spread to his collarbone, his neck and the back of his ears.
His teeth started to hurt, then it felt like someone was scratching the inside of his skull. He had just read that some people claim their teeth hurt, so he decided it was time for action.
He called Sandy and said, “Don’t ask, don’t get dressed, don’t do anything—just get on the golf cart and come get me.”
The deer blind sits near the back of their 50 acres.
“I thought he got the buck,” Sandy said.
She hopped in the golf cart and headed toward the blind. She spotted her husband walking back toward the house.
Then she could see the pain on her husband’s face.
The need for speed
After grabbing a few baby aspirin, the couple decided to drive to the hospital. En route, they called 911. The dispatcher told them to go to Spectrum Health Reed City Hospital, the closest location.
The dispatcher called ahead, so the emergency department team stood ready and waiting when Chuck arrived.
Within minutes, the team placed IVs in Chuck. He quickly underwent two EKG tests.
Charles Emond Jr., DO, an emergency medicine doctor, broke the news.
Chuck suffered a heart attack—an anterior STEMI. Without immediate intervention, he could die. For expediency, they called the medical helicopter.
Sandy remembers those tense moments.
“When I walked in the room, they told me he had to be flown to Grand Rapids,” Sandy said. “That’s when I started crying.”
Chuck called his parents and tried to reassure Sandy that things would be OK.
“When we left, I told her, ‘Don’t worry, I’m going to be fine,'” Chuck said. “But I got on the helicopter not having a clue.”
Sandy drove to Grand Rapids, calling their children and other family members on the way.
“It was a very scary drive,” she said. “I saw the helicopter fly over me and I’m like, ‘Oh, my God.’”
After the helicopter landed, the health team whisked Chuck into surgery with Spectrum Health cardiac interventionist Richard McNamara, MD, and his team.
“It was crazy how fast stuff happened,” Chuck said. “Dr. McNamara came in and said, ‘Hi, I’m Dr. McNamara and this is our Cath Lab team. We are going to take care of this heart attack right now. Let’s get going. You’re going to be fine!'”
“I’m like, ‘Let’s get to it,'” Chuck said, laughing.
Through a catheter placed in Chuck’s arm, the doctor inserted a stent. The procedure took just minutes, but it unblocked the artery and allowed blood to flow.
“It was like 20 minutes after I landed on the rooftop and I was walking,” Chuck said. “I heard Sandy’s voice.”
Within the time Sandy arrived at the hospital and found her way to her husband, the team had completed the procedure.
“I didn’t even know he was done,” Sandy said.
Chuck had told her, “Don’t sit down, we’re going upstairs.”
Doctors admitted him for observation.
Even now, Chuck said he’s amazed at the speed and skill of those who helped him that day.
“Everybody was great,” he said. “From the dispatcher, to Reed City Hospital, to the paramedics in the helicopter, to the people at Butterworth—everybody was great, everybody did their job perfect.
“From the time I called her to the time I had the stent, I think it was 70 minutes. It was crazy.”
To show his appreciation, Chuck created a charcoal drawing of the deer from that fateful day.
He drew it from memory and from photos taken from a field camera. He affectionally calls him Stemi. His deer blind is now dubbed Stemi Stay, in deference to the STEMI heart attack he survived.
Chuck donated one print of the drawing to Dr. McNamara and the Butterworth Hospital team. He donated a second print to Dr. Emond and the emergency department team at Reed City Hospital.
“I wanted to do something in appreciation that had something to do with the event,” he said. “I figured I’ll draw a picture of the deer.”
“The one that gave you the heart attack,” Sandy joked.
“He could have easily been a part of it,” Chuck said, smiling.
“What they did was nothing short of spectacular,” he said.
The Zarkis family lives in St. Clair Shores, three hours from their retirement home. Chuck is an engineer and Sandy is a dental assistant.
Chuck started painting about 12 years ago. The charcoal drawing is the first he’s done since high school.
On the back of the frame, he included a thank you note and a photo of Stemi, taken from a trail camera in December.
On his note he wrote: “While I can never repay you and your team for the depth of what you have done, I hope that this small token may bring some joy and remind you of all the lives you have saved. It’s because of your actions that my mornings are brighter, my days more joyful, my family more precious and life more meaningful.”