Army NCO grateful for surviving heart attack in Iraq
August 17, 2003
BAMBERG, Germany — Master Sgt. David Mills lay, blind and paralyzed, on a cold, hard emergency room table in the Kuwaiti desert, savoring the blessed pain.
Mills, 42, knew he had suffered a heart attack the morning of June 6, minutes after finishing his physical fitness test. Doctors at his unit’s base in Iraq had given him little chance of surviving, but they had flown him to Kuwait aboard a C-130, anyway.
He had been coughing up bloody fluid, and he nearly panicked when the doctors forced him to lie down so they could shove a breathing tube into his lungs.
They gave him a drug to prevent him from moving, but they forgot to give him a sedative.
At first he thought he was dead, until he felt an intense burning at his right elbow and side, worse than any of the terrible pain he had felt all day. Every nerve in his body wanted to scream to the doctors and nurses he could sense swarming all around him, but he couldn’t make a sound.
Strangely, the pain comforted him in its own way.
“It was the one thing,” he said, “that let me know I was still alive.”
A month after his ordeal, Mills — the operations noncommissioned officer in charge of his unit, the Bamberg, Germany-based 71st Corps Support Battalion — looks and feels remarkably healthy. Medically retired after 23 years of active and reserve duty, he and his wife, Sarah, are packing up for their last Army move to their hometown of Columbia, S.C.
He credits his survival to heroic treatment by a medical team stretching from Iraq to Washington, D.C., some of whose names he does not even know.
And, no less, to the prayers of family, friends and strangers.
“I felt like something was around me, protecting me,” Mills said. “I felt like I was being prayed for.”
Mills, the son of an Air Force enlisted man, had spent his whole life in a military cocoon. He joined the Army Reserve in 1980, shortly after high school, and worked variously managing a chicken restaurant, for a steel manufacturer and as a well driller.
With Sarah pregnant and his reserve duty interfering with his regular job, Mills signed up for active duty in the summer of 1983. He worked in vehicle maintenance, serving with the 7th and 24th Infantry divisions, the 32nd Air Defense Artillery Company and the 101st Airborne Division. He deployed to Panama with the 7th ID during the invasion to seize that country’s drug-dealing dictator, Manuel Noriega, though he missed the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
A hard-charging soldier, Mills put on his sergeant’s stripes quickly and worked his way up by putting in long hours and taking on extra duties. He qualified for the Sergeant Morales and Audie Murphy clubs for high-achieving noncommissioned officers.
At the 101st Airborne, he devised an air assault physical fitness program that eventually was adopted by the division, and led a group of volunteers in building a thrift shop for the base at Fort Campbell, Ky. As a first sergeant for a unit in South Korea, he filled in as command sergeant major and operations officer besides fulfilling his own duties.
Apparently fit and in good health, with no heart disease in his family, it stunned Mills to learn at his Army physical exam in 1995 that his blood cholesterol had risen to alarming levels. He started taking a cholesterol-lowering drug and his whole family — including Sarah and their son, Heath, then 11 — began eating healthier.
“We all changed the way we ate,” Sarah said. “I didn’t think it was fair to eat a sloppy Joe when he was eating a salad.”
What didn’t change, though, were Mills’ high-stress lifestyle or his longtime smoking habit. His diet slipped a bit, too, during his 1998-99 tour in Korea.
He got a three-alarm wake-up call July 29, 1999, while assigned to Fort Jackson, S.C. While at the home of some relatives, he started to feel sick. At first, he thought an illness that had troubled him all week had reoccurred, but then his right arm started to tingle and feel tight. He sat down outside while his family called an ambulance.
He learned that an artery in the rear of his heart had clogged completely, and two others were nearly 50 percent blocked. Doctors performed angioplasty — the inflation of a small balloon inside an artery to open it up — and gave him stronger medicine to fight the other two blockages.
Sobered by the heart attack, Mills quit smoking for a time and hoped to stay healthy for four more years until he could retire. In April 2001, he narrowly avoided a second heart attack when he collapsed at the doctor’s office during a stress test. Doctors quickly scheduled a second angioplasty when they found the second artery had become 95 percent clogged.
Still, a medical board pronounced Mills fit for duty. He and Sarah moved to Germany almost a year ago (so did their son, Spc. Heath Mills, 19, who joined the Army and is serving with the 1st Military Intelligence Battalion in Wiesbaden), but he worked as hard as ever.
Plans for travel in Europe fell to the side when his unit deployed to Poland in October. By the time the 71st CSB came home, it became apparent its members would soon be headed for Iraq. Mills was running and bicycling regularly, and doctors declared him fit for deployment.
His unit arrived at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, then jumped to Camp Victory near the Iraqi border. When the war started, the unit went north to Camp Bushmaster near an-Najaf, Iraq, and, after Baghdad fell, to Balad Air Base north of the capital.
Every step of the way, Mills supervised packing and unpacking of his unit’s motor pool, training his troops in the art of the convoy. His soldiers knew about his heart condition; they nagged him about taking his medicine and avoiding cigarettes.
By June 6, the 71st CSB had settled into a comfortable, if hot, routine on a base that at least included showers and plumbing.
Then the elephant stepped on his chest again.
Mills woke up early for his 6:30 a.m. PT test. Command Sgt. Maj. Sammy Brinson, concerned about Mills’ health, personally supervised the test.
He finished 36 push-ups but struggled with the sit-ups. Oddly, he felt sore in the chest instead of the stomach afterward.
He tackled the two-mile run, smoking his competitors in 15:23. Then he returned to his tent, but something wasn’t quite right.
“I felt funny,” Mills recalled. “I felt stinging in my chest. I said, ‘No, it can’t be!’”
He swallowed a nitroglycerin tablet. His arm dangled at his side. He walked outside and saw his old friend, Master Sgt. Frederick Murray, who asked Mills if he was OK.
“I couldn’t say anything. I just shook my head ‘No’ and laid down on my bunk,” he said.
Several soldiers in his unit put Mills on a litter, loaded him aboard a truck, and hustled him to the emergency room of the 21st Combat Support Hospital at Balad. Maj. Stephanie Redding, a family practice physician from Fort Hood, Texas, took charge.
“When they got me to the CSH, the pain was really intense,” he said, thinking for the first time that he could die. “I was saying, ‘No, not now, not here.’”
The primitive conditions in the desert limited Redding’s options. She could not perform an angioplasty, she told Stars and Stripes via e-mail from Iraq, because the hospital lacked the capability. Nitroglycerin seemed to have no effect, nor did oxygen.
She rated the seriousness of his condition as a 6 on a scale of 10.
Mills recalls Redding telling him she was running out of options. She offered to give him streptokinase, a strong “clotbuster” drug that could unclog his blocked artery. But she also warned that it might cause fatal bleeding.
He took the chance. The drug worked.
No one knew that right away, though. Mills slipped in and out of consciousness for the rest of the day, but he vividly remembers his commanding officer, Lt. Col. Greg Cusimano, touching his forehead to Mills’ in fervent prayer. And he remembers his “battle buddy,” Master Sgt. Mark Hill, standing by the bed and holding his rifle.
“Every time I came to, there he was,” Mills recalled. “He was like a guardian angel.”
As Mills lay in the emergency room, doctors at Balad convened a medical evaluation board to assess his condition. Within hours, and without Mills’ knowledge, the board decided to retire him — a step that would lead to increased benefits should he die. The doctors considered that highly probable: on the board’s report is written “Death is Imminent within 72 hours.”
In Bamberg, Sarah looked out her window that Friday morning and saw the wives of the unit’s first sergeant and command sergeant major coming up the walk.
“I knew right then something was wrong,” she said.
They told her that her husband was alive, but that he had suffered some small heart attacks, and that she should call him right away.
“I said, ‘Honey, what’s going on?’” Sarah recalled. “He said, ‘Well, the doctors are kind of bored down here.’”
She rushed to Landstuhl Medical Center, about four hours away, determined to be there when David arrived but with no idea where she might stay. She wound up at Fisher House, which offers low-cost lodging to military families.
In the meantime, Mills’ condition faded as he flew aboard the C-130 to Camp Wolf, Kuwait. His blood pressure plummeted.
“On the plane, they were punching my heart,” he said. “They were actually telling me to breathe because my heart rate got so low.”
Mills hung on until medics could get him into the 47th Combat Support Hospital at Camp Wolf. In the emergency room, he experienced his first real dread when the supervising physician, known only as Dr. Dunn, forced him to lie down. The doctor needed to put a tube into his lungs.
“I was so worried I was going to lay down, and I was not going to see anything again,” Mills said. “I said, ‘Dr. Dunn, bring me back!’”
Within minutes, he felt the ferocious burning at his right elbow that brought him such pain and comfort. He passed out and woke up later in the recovery room, his wrists tied with gauze to the bed and gagging from the tube in his throat.
The doctors never figured out what caused the second-degree burns on his elbow and side. A month later, Mills still wore bandages on them. He’s been warned he might need skin grafts. Although he’s happy with the medical care that saved his life, he is mystified how a paralyzed patient could suffer such savage burns in an emergency room without anyone noticing.
David and Sarah spoke by cell phone while he lay in Camp Wolf’s intensive care unit. He told her he didn’t expect to catch a flight home until two days later.
But he lucked out, and the medics loaded him early the next morning on a C-17 bound for Ramstein Air Base, Germany. Late that morning, he reached his room at Landstuhl — only to find that Sarah wasn’t there. Not expecting him for another day, she’d gone to the commissary to pick up some supplies. She raced to the hospital after someone called her cell phone.
“It was the best thing I’ve ever seen in my life, besides my son being born,” he said. “It was like a great big weight being lifted. I could finally see her, and she could see me. Of course, she told me I looked like hell.”
Mills hadn’t shaved, bathed or changed clothes since his heart attack. He weighed 158 pounds, nine fewer than at his PT test weigh-in three days earlier.
“He had bruises, he had dried blood,’ Sarah said. “He looked like he’d been through war.”
That day, Heath Mills came to see his dad. His unit is scheduled to deploy to Balad, so father and son had been looking forward to serving in the Middle East.
David Mills recalls: “He walked right up and said, ‘Dad, I love you and I’m proud of you. But I guess I won’t see you in Iraq.’”
He recuperated for three days at Landstuhl before he was rolled aboard yet another Medevac flight to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. — this time with his wife and an attending nurse, 1st Lt. David Calvert, by his side.
The next day, his parents, David and Lorene Mills, and a passel of aunts, uncles and cousins arrived from South Carolina to wish him a happy 42nd birthday. Doctors catheterized his blocked artery and sent him to a hotel to recover. By the time he flew home June 20, he could walk and take short trips. By the following week, he felt as fit as ever.
“People were really blown away when they saw me,” Mills said.
It is lucky that he recovered so quickly, because the Army gave the Mills family less than a month to clear the Army and leave Germany. Their lives have been a flurry of activity ever since.
They aren’t sure yet what they’re going to do with his new lease on life. There is no guarantee that his heart will stay healthy, though doctors have told them no other arteries in his heart show signs of congestion. He is thinking of reviving a long-dormant construction business, or possibly finishing his bachelor’s degree in education and becoming a teacher.
Mills does intend to take a long rest, though, and Sarah is determined that he won’t return to the workaholic ways both believe caused his heart attacks.
“I don’t want him to live like he’s going to die tomorrow,” Sarah said. “I just don’t want him to think he’s Superman anymore. He’s got to stop and smell the roses.”
“Not everybody,” Mills added, “gets a second chance.”