Retired Lt. Gen. Keith Huber reflects on near-fatal heart attack, dedication to MTSU student veterans


Photo courtesy of Army News

Retired Lt. Gen. Keith Huber was sitting next to his wife on Sept. 19, 2017, when the pain struck his chest. He was attending a fundraising event, hosted by Charlie and Hazel Daniels, for which the MTSU Military and Veterans Center on campus is named. In fact, the retired general, who currently serves as the senior adviser for veterans and leadership initiatives at MTSU, was surrounded by familiar faces: MTSU President Sidney McPhee, MTSU First Lady Elizabeth McPhee and Keith’s spouse, Shelly Huber. The familiar surroundings, however, did not make the pain more bearable or less unusual.

“I was accustomed to being thankful for every day and living through significant pain that I refused to medicate for,” Keith said.

Keith had for the last four years endured a daily and consistent nerve-stabbing pain due to previous surgeries and almost 40 years of military service.

“I felt a more excruciating pain than normal, and it seemed to be focused in my chest and in my heart,” he said.

He was forced to excuse himself during the event and broke into a cold sweat in the bathroom.

“My limited knowledge of signals that there is something wrong said, ‘OK. There’s something wrong here,’” he said. “The room closed in on me and became dim.”

As Keith made his way back to his wife, he found that he was struggling to maintain consciousness. The constant danger of passing out led Keith to ask Shelly if they could leave the event.

“David Corlew, Charlie Daniel’s lifelong manager, helped me get the vehicle, and President McPhee and Shelly literally walked me out and into the vehicle,” Keith said.

Keith stated that his wife wished to go immediately to Vanderbilt University Medical Center to seek treatment, but he was concerned about his 12-year-old daughter, who was home with a teenage babysitter.

“It was the first time we had used the babysitter, and I didn’t want to run the risk of being admitted into Vanderbilt and then having my daughter alone with a teenage babysitter,” Keith said.

Keith was rushed home, and the babysitter was relieved. Keith found himself vomiting in the bathroom two more times. The retired Green Beret, who spent much of his life dedicated to staying in an impeccable physical condition, came to an implausible, yet undeniable, realization.

“When (Shelly) got back, I said, ‘I think I’ve just had a heart attack,’” he said.  

After their daughter was taken to a neighbor’s house, Shelly and Keith arrived at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

“That place is always bloody packed,” Keith laughed. “So, finding a parking spot was a challenge. I didn’t want her to drop me off at the Emergency Room and have her walk back from the dark parking lot because, by then, it was already 11 o’clock at night.”

The couple parked the car and started toward the hospital. As the pain continued to run through Keith’s body, he lost the ability to stand and dropped to his knees.

“The pain was almost to the point where I wanted to yell,” he said.

Fortunately, a pair of hospital security guards were changing shifts at the time, and they assisted Shelly in lifting Keith and placing him in a wheelchair.

Keith described the cold sweats, vomiting and fear of losing consciousness to the responding doctors.

“They said, ‘You’re describing a heart attack. But, we look at you, and you don’t look like a heart attack victim,’” he said.

The doctors performed a cardiac catheterization, despite acknowledging that they didn’t believe much evidence of a heart attack would be found. Inserting a catheter into a blood vessel found in Keith wrist, the doctors began to search for the root of his suffering.

“While I was under anesthesia, I was still aware,” Keith said. “I heard the doctor say, ‘Well, you’ll never believe this.'”

The doctor’s found seven blockages in his heart. Immediately, two stents were put in place to keep blood flowing to the retired general’s heart.

On Sept. 21, two days after the heart attack, the doctors decided that a triple-bypass heart surgery was necessary for Keith to recover.

“I had survived the attack, and then, later on, they were amazed that I was able to survive the attack and also that there was no heart damage,” he said.

The only explanation that the medical professionals could come up with for the heart attack was that it stemmed from hereditary issues.

After the surgery and subsequent recovery, many former military colleagues, including United States Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, began to contact Keith. The majority were shocked that the man they served and fought with could have had any heart issues, let alone a heart attack.

“Since (the heart attack), I’ve had phone calls and emails and texts from people that I’ve had the privilege to serve with that I haven’t talked to in a decade,” he said.

Mattis and Keith were one-star generals together back in 1999.

“He called my wife, Shelly, every day that I was in intensive care, and a man of his responsibility to show that kind of a concern for a fellow soldier is very humbling,” Keith said. “Almost anyone who knows me called, and they’re going, ‘Boy, you’re the last person that we would ever consider to have a heart attack. If you can have a heart attack, then any of us can have a heart attack.’”

Keith explained that he was surprised by the receptiveness of the media to the story of his heart attack. However, he was adamant that he didn’t want to be the focus of the story. Instead, he hopes that men and women across the country can read about his near-death experience and be motivated to find ways to better understand potential heart risks.

“If the story alerted other people to the fact that some of the medical tools to screen you for heart issues may not be that useful or accurate and if it drew attention to the incredible support provided to our veterans and their families by MTSU and by the Charlie and Hazel Daniels Veteran Center,  I was willing to tell it,” he said.

Keith suggested to former colleagues that, rather than getting a heart stress test, they should look into getting a cardiac CT Scan.

“It’s a great reminder to us all as to how fragile and precious life is, and how perhaps, we should focus more on being civil to each other and not waste a day worrying about what we don’t have,” he said.

The fragility of life was certainly in Keith’s mind after the heart attack, but it wasn’t a new concept for the retired general. And, it wasn’t a burden he had to share alone.

“A year before, my wife had to have open heart surgery to replace a valve, and they had to stop her heart and put her on a lung and heart machine and artificially keep her alive, ironically by the same doctors,” he said. “I don’t know how many husband and wife teams have had open heart surgery and by the same doctor.”

He said that it was both comforting and bonding that his wife had gone through a similar experience to that of his heart attack.

“There were so many things that I experienced in my 30 years of active duty that I didn’t discuss with her because I knew that she didn’t have a frame of reference,” Keith said. “So, being able to discuss with her what I went through and being able to see what she went through as her spouse was very comforting.”

He was cleared by the doctors and returned to work at MTSU in early November.

“They made me wait 90 days before I could do any push-ups, pull-ups or sit-ups,” Keith said. “Now, I’m doing a couple hundred push-ups a day, and I want to get back to where I was at four or five hundred push-ups per day and two or three hundred sit-ups a day.”

While he said that the experience didn’t exactly change his outlook on life, it did allow him to pass on an important lesson. 

“I’ve seen men and women die in service to our nation,” Keith said. “So, it didn’t change my respect or appreciation for each and every day. But, it did allow me to tell a story to others that may say, ‘Gee, Huber is in such good physical condition that he won’t drop dead of a heart attack.’ And, I almost did. So, perhaps, it will allow them to reflect upon their lives and how fragile they are and help them to try to be good human beings each and every day.”

Keith stated that he is as committed as ever to the student veterans who face challenges in college life every day. And, that is something that a heart attack and open-heart surgery couldn’t take from the general.

“You could say, ‘You should’ve died, but you didn’t,’” Keith said. “So, obviously, there is some reason for that. Some higher being goes, ‘Hey, you’re not done yet. There’s more stuff I want you to do.’ And, in this case, it’s the privilege and opportunity that I have at Middle Tennessee State University to try and represent our student veterans and try to assist them during their difficult times in transition.”

To contact News Editor Andrew Wigdor, email newseditor@mtsusidelines.com.

For more news, follow us at www.mtsusidelines.com, on Facebook at MTSU Sidelines and on Twitter at @Sidelines_News.

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