Berkley High drama coordinator recounts ‘widowmaker’ heart attack that changed his life

By: Mike Koury | Woodward Talk | Published November 15, 2018

 Berkley School District Drama Coordinator John Hopkins sits on the steps of the auditorium at Berkley High School where he had a heart attack nine months ago.

Berkley School District Drama Coordinator John Hopkins sits on the steps of the auditorium at Berkley High School where he had a heart attack nine months ago.

Photo by Mike Koury

 John Hopkins directs Aaron Warrow during a Nov. 7 rehearsal for Berkley High School’s play, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.” Hopkins returned to working at the school eight weeks after his heart attack.

John Hopkins directs Aaron Warrow during a Nov. 7 rehearsal for Berkley High School’s play, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.” Hopkins returned to working at the school eight weeks after his heart attack.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

BERKLEY — John Hopkins was walking through the halls of Berkley High School, talking about why he loves his job, his excitement for the upcoming school play, and saying quick hellos to students and teachers passing by.

Nine months ago, this might not have been a possibility.

At 2:45 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 6, Hopkins, the district drama coordinator, was in the school’s auditorium preparing for a rehearsal of his drama club’s spring musical when he began to feel some pain and felt flushed.

While Hopkins thought he was just starting to get sick, he actually was in the beginning stages of a heart attack.

Hopkins had felt sick the week before, which led him to cancel a rehearsal. The last thing he wanted, he said, was for anybody to catch what he thought he had. So he sent out a mass text to the cast canceling rehearsal again and telling them he’d see them tomorrow.

“Almost as soon as I sent that out, I had, like, shortness of breath and started having pain in my jaw and in my back, and my arms went numb, and I started going, ‘OK, something is seriously wrong here,’” he said. “Then I realized that I had just gotten rid of anybody who might come in and find me.”

Hopkins texted the then-assistant principal, now Principal Andy Meloche, to meet him, telling him that something was wrong.

Meloche met Hopkins in the auditorium, where Hopkins was sitting on the stairs, stage left.

“He didn’t look very good,” Meloche said. “He looked very pale. He explained he was having some shortness of breath, and so right away, I said, ‘Let’s call 911.’”

Hopkins wanted to wait a couple of minutes, though Meloche was adamant that they should make a call and possibly be wrong rather than wait any longer and have something bad happen.

Police and EMTs arrived minutes later and performed an EKG on Hopkins, who still was sitting on the stage stairs. It was there that Hopkins, at 48 years old, heard paramedics say, “We have to roll. He’s having a heart attack.”

“It was totally out of, like, the realm of possibility in my head,” he said. “When they said, ‘He’s having a heart attack,’ I went, ‘(Gasp), who?’”

“That’s when it kind of sunk in, like holy cow, I’m sure glad that we called, and I’m glad John didn’t talk me out of calling,” Meloche said.

Paramedics took Hopkins off the steps, which he now refers to as his “heart attack stairs,” put him on a stretcher, placed him in an ambulance and took him to Beaumont Hospital.

At Beaumont, it was discovered that the heart attack Hopkins was suffering from was a “widowmaker,” which is 100 percent blockage of the left anterior descending artery, which provides a substantial amount of blood flow to the heart.

Hopkins was rushed into surgery to place a stent in the artery and clear out the blockage. Shortly after 4 p.m., he was being wheeled out.

While all of this was going on, the drama coordinator’s students were starting to learn the details of why their director had to cancel rehearsal.

Miles Young, who graduated from Berkley High School last school year and now is assistant directing the school’s current play, said he was at home when he had gotten word of Hopkins’ heart attack from his mom through Hopkins’ husband, Mike Gazzarari.

“It was probably, like, a half-hour from when I got informed it happened to (when I learned) he’s all right,” he said. “I just sat there, like, waiting for the response, because I’ve worked with him for, like, six years now. I did drama camps when I was in middle school. I’ve done every play … and it’s helped me so much as a person to grow, and he’s helped me so much and inspired me in so many ways and … halfway through my senior year, for that to happen was just terrifying.”

Even after suffering a heart attack at the age of 48, Hopkins said it didn’t really even hit him that he actually had a heart attack.

“Once I finally could rationalize in my head that, yes, that did happen, then it was very eye-opening,” he said.

Hopkins knew he had to make serious changes to his lifestyle and take better care of himself, which he admitted he did more out of the fear of ever going through another heart attack again than willpower.

He also admitted that he had never been the healthiest individual, and hated the idea of running for exercise.

“It totally changed eating habits,” he said. “I’m down 35 pounds since then … but I could really go for a burger.”

Hopkins said he has taken up running as well, five to six days a week and usually on average about 5 miles a day.

“I still hate it very much,” he said.

For three months, Hopkins also wore a vest that contained a heart monitor and defibrillator, as doctors were concerned about the damage the attack had done to his heart and that, if he were to have another one, his chances of surviving were pretty much “nonexistent.”

In addition to the physical and dietary changes he made, Hopkins said he additionally had to change how he looks at everyday decisions in his life and what is the healthiest option for him to make.

“I stand back and say, ‘OK, is this something that I can truly do something about, and if not, do I need to get stressed? Do I need to raise my blood pressure?’ It has caused me to kind of stand back and say ‘OK, I’m a nurturer. I like to look out for the people around me and sometimes ...  at my own expense,’” he said. “I’m getting better at not making everybody else’s life OK at the expense of my own wellness. I find balance there.”

Hopkins returned to Berkley High School eight weeks after his heart attack. He said coming back was emotional for him and, while he loved spending time at home with his dog Tanner, he was missing his students.

Though he missed directing the kids in the spring musical, he was able to watch them act in a performance they dedicated to him.

“For them to say they did it for me, it was unreal,” he said. “The honor, at times, I feel like it was too high. Too big of an honor. It’s crazy. ... Before any of this, I had said that I have the best job on the earth and this is my career home. Since then, it’s that times a million.”

Since he started acting, Young has been working with Hopkins, and Young said he’s had an incredible impact on his life.

“I’m definitely much more of a confident person than I would’ve been without him,” he said. “He’s inspired me to go for it at every turn of the way and to really push myself to do my best and give it my all.

“High school’s a hard time for a lot of people, and this was definitely an escape from that into something much more exciting and interesting, and he was a huge part of what made that so helpful and such a positive experience for me. I’ve definitely been inspired by what he does, because what he does is just help people. … I know so many people that would say that he’s helped them so, so much. He will do anything for his kids, and I’m inspired by that.”

On Nov. 9, long after returning to school, Hopkins once again was getting ready for rehearsal, this time for the play “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.”

Hopkins stood in the middle of the stage where he first felt the symptoms of his heart attack. He sat on the steps where paramedics confirmed it. He was thankful to be back.

“I have to say, when I first came back to work, people were like, ‘Are you sure you should be here?’ And … I have amazing students, amazing colleagues, amazing support from our administration, and when people were like, ‘Are you sure you should be back just yet,’ I knew that it was truly good for my heart, in sort of a soul sense, to be with the people who are in this building.”