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The People's Voice: Zuithoff has big, surprisingly vulnerable heart

Published: Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014 1:15 a.m. CST • Updated: Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014 12:12 p.m. CST
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(Michael Krabbenhoeft/mkrabbenhoeft@saukvalley.com)
Rev. Ken Zuithoff, a 35-year Sterling resident who retired about a year and a half ago, is a heart attack survivor. The former minister at Bethel Reformed Church rides his bicycle regularly and is currently in the process of building a cedar strip canoe.
Caption
(Michael Krabbenhoeft/mkrabbenhoeft@saukvalley.com)
Ken Zythoff talks in his Sterling home about his heart attack and how it has changed his approach to everyday life.

February is American Heart Month, and you know what that means: Myriad stories of folks surviving heart illness and then dramatically changing their lifestyle.

Or, more inspiring yet, tales of folks winning heated battles with ailments of the ticker by taking control of things like diet and exercise.

This is not one of those stories. But its message might be even more important.

If you know the Rev. Ken Zuithoff, the longtime minister of Bethel Reformed Church who retired about a year and a half ago, you’ve likely seen him riding his bike. Or perhaps rototilling his or a neighbor’s garden. Maybe you’ve seen him and his wife, Sally, strolling through Kilgore Park.

But about 3 years ago, that last, seemingly innocent activity triggered a massive heart attack in Zuithoff who, by sheer appearances, isn’t the first guy you’d tag for such a harrowing experience.

Click here to hear the whole conversation with the Rev. Ken Zuithoff and his wife, Sally. ( To download the mp3, right-click the link and click "Save link as")

Let’s get this out of the way. Yes, this is a column about people. And I’m looking forward to telling you all about why Zuithoff is a super-awesome guy. In a minute.

Because this also is an column, allow me to interject my humble opinion. Oh, and I get to use juvenile tricks for emphasis. Let’s see, ... where is the ... aha!

WHAT HAPPENED TO ZUITHOFF COULD HAPPEN TO ANY OF US.

With caps lock disengaged, allow me to explain. Zuithoff looks the same today as he did the day he had about a 20-minute window before ... well, let’s not think about that.

He has always been active. He hasn’t exactly overhauled his diet.

The heart is sort of like the emotion it’s so often associated with – it does not discriminate. All it takes is the right combination of any assortment of factors, and you’re a target. In Zuithoff’s case, it’s in the family, and his cholesterol level was slightly above the recommended level.

But for his father, perhaps the factor was that he was a smoker. Then there’s gender. Age. Race. Diabetes. Stress. You know, to name a few.

So have your annual check-up, folks. Set it up now. I’ll wait.

Nice work. Moving along.

Zuithoff’s brush with death was a roller coaster. Shortly after admission to CGH Medical Center, he was told that he was having – not that he had, or was about at risk of having – a heart attack.

Then medical personnel told Zuithoff that the issue had resolved itself, and they left a couple of nurses in the room to keep tabs on him.

“Within a few minutes, they were basically sprinting down the hall with me in the gurney,” he said.

“Literally running,” Sally interrupts. “I was trying to call our sons, and they were yelling ‘Code Blue!’”

They prepped him for a catheter, and he was told that his left anterior descending artery (while hard to pronounce, not too scary of a term) was a widow maker. (OK. Is anything scarier than that?) It gets the term because, when a heart attack is born there, only 10 percent of sufferers cheat death.

But Sally isn’t a widow today, despite the fact that cardiologist Dr. Paul Maxwell would later tell her that her husband’s attack was an 8.75 on a scale from 1 to 10.

Naturally, Zuithoff would point to divine intervention to explain why he’s still here with us. Whether you believe in that sort of thing or not, whatever intervened made the right call. We’re all better off with him here.

Even in retirement, Zuithoff volunteers as a police chaplain, as well as at the hospital. He also has helped many, many folks struggling with thoughts of suicide to find and embrace the will to live.

And on a perceivably lighter note, when he sees someone he wouldn’t classify as a spring chicken shoveling snow, he pitches in.

That reminds me. Take it easy with the shoveling. Just last week, Dr. Maxwell told me, he had six male patients whose vigilance resulted in heart attacks.

Back to Zuithoff. He’s got a beautiful family: a charming wife and three sons, all married with children, running his grandkid total to eight.

He’s the sort of upbeat, funny guy you’d think the good Lord would be remiss to take away from us.

But that Guy works in mysterious ways.

I’m sure you’re awesome, too. But don’t trust that being super-great will keep you around. I emphasize again: Get a check-up. After all, there are 11 other months in a year, and tens of thousands of illnesses that can get you if you’re not vigilant.

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