When the Doctor Becomes the Patient
Podiatrist and surgeon Dr. William Spak has practiced medicine for 36 years, with much of his work taking place at the Providence St. Joseph Hospital Wound Care Center. Despite his vast experience dealing with emergencies and severe medical conditions, he was shocked when he woke from a coma and heard what had happened to him four days earlier.
Dr. Spak’s amazing story began just before Thanksgiving 2022, a week before his 63rd birthday. While the doctor doesn’t remember any details, his wife, Dianne, and their kids filled him in on what happened.
The day of his health event, he enjoyed a lunch with his wife in Huntington Beach. When they got home, neither felt that great, and they assumed it was something in the food. Later that evening, the doctor got up to go the bathroom while Dianne slept. A few hours later, she was awakened by a call from Providence St. Joseph Hospital. She was stunned to learn that her husband had driven himself to the St. Joseph Hospital Emergency Care Center.
“I guess what happened was that I had decided to get in the car and drive myself to St. Joseph. When I arrived, I handed them my keys and I hit the floor,” says Dr. Spak. He had suffered an acute myocardial infarction. Basically, the doctor’s heart had stopped beating.
Cardiologist George Wesley, MD, was the doctor on call. He immediately put a stent in Dr. Spak’s cardiac artery. But his heart stopped for a second time. Dr. Spak says it took some out-of the-box thinking by the specialists on the hospital’s Heart and Vascular Cardiac Quick Response Team. Cardiothoracic surgeon Brian Palafox, MD, and cardiologist Michael Chan, MD, inserted an Impella heart pump, a device that temporarily takes over the pumping function of the heart.
“I woke up four days later to find out I had been in a medically induced coma,” explains Dr. Spak. “I don’t actually remember anything from the first week and a half after that.”
Dr. Spak has a family history of heart disease and had suffered two previous heart attacks. The first time, he was working in the hospital and didn’t even realize it was happening. “I had a little chest irritation while I was seeing a patient in the ER,” he recalls. “They did an EKG and said they needed to put a stent in. That was about three years ago.”
His second attack came during the COVID pandemic. “I woke up and my chest was hurting. I knew what it was, and I got in the car and drove myself to the hospital. I guess maybe that’s why I did the same thing most recently, but I don’t remember.”
Dr. Spak feels certain his many years of working up to 70 hours a week plus teaching, along with not watching his weight or diet, have contributed to his heart problems.
EXCELLENCE MEETS COMPASSION
The doctor is on staff at three different hospitals, yet his first thought at that crucial time was to drive to Providence St. Joseph. “I do most of my work there and know the cardiac team there well. I’m sure in my subconscious, when I was driving, I felt the most comfortable at St. Joseph,” he explains. “I could have driven to any one of them, but they wouldn’t have had the same team, the same equipment, and I probably wouldn’t be here now.”
Dr. Spak says his family has told him repeatedly how amazing everyone at the hospital was during the time he was in a coma and afterward. He seems humbled when he talks about the effect this has had on him and his coworkers. “I’ve had people stop in the middle of the hallway at St. Joseph, literally start crying and embrace me and say how wonderful it is to see me. But I didn’t remember them being there during my ordeal. That’s happened three times.”
Since his lifesaving surgery, the doctor has lost 40 pounds and is walking at least an hour a day. “And my wife has insisted I change my schedule to take two to three mornings off a week. She’s here to make sure I stay home.” Dr. Spak admits that he had been a bad patient, not taking care of his health: “Doctors are the worst patients. My advice now would be to do the things you need to do before you have an event. Go to your doctor visits. Have the appropriate tests and maintain a healthy lifestyle.”
Dr. Spak says he and his family will be forever grateful to the team at Providence St. Joseph. Whatever force guided him there that fateful night was likely rooted in his strong belief in the hospital. “The doctors there are on the cutting edge of everything, especially cardiac care, but it’s more than just their expert training,” he notes. “It’s compassion. It’s caring. You don’t find this type of dedication everywhere.”
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