Lt. Gen. Keith Huber’s almost 40 years in the U.S. Army, including distinction as the longest-serving Green Beret when he retired in 2013, involved some life-threatening scenarios that he still can’t discuss.
But, as MTSU’s senior adviser for veterans and leadership initiatives prepared for the new year, he recalled what could have been a fatal heart attack last fall — and how he approaches life with renewed vigor.
“Of my other near-death experiences,” Huber said, “this one was the best — because I can talk about it.”
Huber, in a special web-only video interview, released Wednesday, Jan. 3, on “Out of the Blue,” MTSU’s public affairs television program, described how he fell ill Sept. 19 while attending an evening fundraising event hosted by country music great Charlie Daniels. The interview can be seen at https://tinyurl.com/huberheart.
Daniels and his wife, Hazel, lent their names to the Veterans and Military Family Center that Huber helped create on the MTSU campus. Huber’s wife, Shelley, and MTSU President Sidney A. McPhee were with Huber when the attack began.
Huber has lived with chronic spinal pain as a result of his combat duties and training. On that night in downtown Nashville, however, Huber, 64, felt pain sharper and harsher than before.
“I was in pain, but I’ve been accustomed to trying to do pain management based upon surgeries I’ve had,” he said. “But this one caused me very considerable heart pain.”
He went to the men’s room, threw up, composed himself and returned to the reception to find his wife and McPhee.
“I think I’m going to lose consciousness,” he recalled telling them, quietly. “We need to leave.”
Typical for the career soldier, Huber insisted that they go home, relieve the babysitter watching their 11-year-old daughter, Alexis, and allow him to change out of his uniform. They then rushed to Vanderbilt Medical Center.
“I had the next 90 days of my life laid out,” he said, “but then life grabbed ahold of me.”
Doctors examining the general found a contradiction: still, fit from his Army days, Huber didn’t appear to be a typical heart attack patient.
“They said, ‘Hey, you look like you’re in great shape; what you are describing is a heart attack,’” Huber recalled the physicians saying in those first moments at the hospital. “‘I’m going to do a (cardiac) catheterization, but looking at you, I don’t think I’m going to find much.’”
What they did find were seven blockages. The one giving him the greatest pain, in his chest, was dubbed “the widow-maker,” Huber recalled. It was a 97 percent blockage, all likely due to heredity.
“Your lifestyle can allow you to potentially survive opportunities like this, but it can’t change who your parents were or what your tendencies were,” Huber said.
The doctors told Huber that his “disciplined approach to physical fitness” allowed him to survive without heart damage. They inserted two stents and recommended triple bypass surgery, initially suggesting the procedure in a month.
After hearing a second opinion, Huber decided the surgery would be done the next day.
The general said he drew upon the strength he witnessed in his wife when she underwent a difficult 2016 surgery to repair a heart valve.
“I tell people this because it’s something that I can talk to my wife about. She’s got a frame of reference, that they had to stop her heart to repair it,” he said. “We have a comparison of something that is very difficult to describe if you haven’t been through it.”
Since his surgery, military colleagues from across the globe, including U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, have called Huber, expressing disbelief that the lean Green Beret had heart problems.
His advice to them, and to all others who ask: Get a cardiac CT scan for coronary calcium, a noninvasive way of learning the location and extent of plaque in arteries.
Huber said he had three previous heart stress tests, all of which reported that he had the heart of a 20-year-old. A stress test, he said, “will tell you that your heart is damaged, but it wouldn’t do anything to ID if there is restricted blood flow.”
The general’s recovery was quick, and he returned to work at MTSU in early November. He said he decided to share his story to underscore his renewed passion for serving the university’s student veterans.
“I should have died the night of the 19th, and my challenge now is to be worthy of every additional day I have been provided,” Huber said. “And this university, with its commitment to our veterans, allows me to make a contribution and to hopefully either inspire or if necessary, bloody coerce other institutions to do what is the right thing.
“And the right thing is to provide comprehensive support to veterans in transition.”