"I'm fine. Really. I'm fine."
Sixty-year-old Dan Timmons acted as if nothing had happened.
Minutes earlier, a loud thump sent his wife Michele into the next room to check on their granddaughter Emily.
Instead, she found Dan, face down on the floor, unresponsive and apparently seizing. Michele ran to grab her phone and returned to find her husband back in his desk chair and downplaying the incident.
"I gave him two options," she says. "I'm gonna call 9-1-1, or we get in my car and go to the emergency room." Young Emily also sensed her grandpa's reluctance. "Yeah, Papa, you better do as Nana said."
Fifteen years of marriage had taught Dan to know when Michele was serious. This was one of those times. He chose option two.
It was a warm late-August afternoon when the couple pulled up to KVH Hospital. "We were both dressed for summer weather," Michele recalls. Within minutes, Dan was in emergency triage. Lab results were normal. So was the CT of his brain. But Dan's chest x-ray sent Dr. Andrew Peet to confer by phone with Harborview and UW Medicine.
"Dr. Peet knew it was a serious situation," says Michele. Another CT was ordered, this time for the heart. Peet's suspicions were confirmed. "Daniel had a tear in his aorta."
Dan was resting when Peet sat by the bed and calmly told him what they'd found. Airlift Northwest was en route. Dan was to be medivacked to UW, where a surgical suite was already prepped. That sounded fine to Dan.
"I just thought, 'hey, cool, I like helicopters.' I had no idea things were so serious."
With Michele by his side, Dan was soon on his way to Seattle. He'd declined a warm blanket before take-off; he was now regretting it. "It was warm on the ground, but in t-shirt and shorts, up in the air things got cold, fast."
With construction underway near the helipad, the pilot touched down across the street. The Timmons, both proud Cougar parents, had landed at Husky Stadium. It wasn't long before Dan was undergoing open-heart surgery to repair the dangerous tear in his upper aorta, known as a Type A aortic dissection. Michele was ushered to a room in ICU where her husband would recover post-surgery.
It was midnight. "He should be out by 5:30," she'd been told.
Five-thirty came and went. Michele was joined by her daughter and daughter's boyfriend and Daniel's two sons as the wait continued. By the time Dan was wheeled into the room, he'd undergone ten hours in surgery.
Thoracic surgeon Dr. Kevin Koomalsing brought Michele up to speed while Dan was emerging from anesthesia. He'd later learn the surgical team had removed a section of his aorta and replaced it with synthetic material.
Dan didn't know it yet, but he was lucky to be alive.
"Never once did it dawn on me that my life might be in danger," he says. "Apparently I was a heartbeat away from dead, but I didn't get that feeling."
"Because you weren't in pain," his wife adds.
Dan remained in the hospital for nine days before the couple returned home to Ellensburg. The drive was memorable. "Wearing a seatbelt when you have a fresh scar across your chest is the worst," Dan recalls with a wince. "Every bump, it's like 'OH!'"
Two weeks later, they made a return visit for his post-surgical checkup. Then it was off to the Virginia Mason Yakima Memorial Heart Center for cardiac rehabilitation. "I went three days a week for 12 weeks. The driving was the worst part - the people were nice, and I enjoyed the workouts," he laughs.
It's been five months since Dan's heart surgery. He's back to running in the mornings. He's had time to reflect and learn more about his condition. Dan now realizes how serious his situation was - and is. Last week, he "had a good appointment" with Yakima cardiologist Dr. Tony Kim, and is scheduled for another checkup in Seattle later this month.
In the meantime, Dan continues his work as a systems administrator, part of the Information Systems team at KVH. A close-knit group, his colleagues made special red "Super Dan" t-shirts for National Wear Red Day, which observes heart health awareness.
It's the kind of thing a family would do - celebrating one of their own. And "family" is exactly the way both Dan and Michele, who also works at KVH, would describe the people they rub shoulders with every work day. And when there's a medical emergency, that same family is there.
"Coming here during the trauma really made it so much less stressful," says Michele. "All the familiar faces in the ER, and then Max [Tilton, CCU nurse] gives me a big hug as he's getting off shift and says, 'Michele, if you need anything, just call us.'"
The Timmons agree that over the years they've both experienced great care at the hands of KVH friends, old and new.
"All medical care is important, no matter what," affirms Dan. "It may not always seem like it to us, but to people who need the care, it is super important. And every time I'm seen by a doctor, I learn that lesson more and more."