Voices of the NIH Community

“You could have died several times by now”

Former NIH Institute Director Alan Guttmacher has two lethal conditions – heart disease, which killed both of his grandfathers, and leukemia, which took his father and identical twin. Yet advances in medical research have kept him alive and productive. He talks with his wife, Brigid, about his first heart attack, research, and the various medical challenges they have faced.


Brigid Guttmacher: You could have died several times by now, so how come you’re still here?

Alan Guttmacher: Most of all because of you.  In some ways the story of my health or lack thereof starts 15 years ago.  One night we went to bed and the next thing I vaguely remember is you.

Brigid Guttmacher: You sat up in bed mumbling.  Not that you were talking in your sleep but there was an urgency like you were trying to tell me something.  And then you just fell back onto the bed and I thought, “Somebody does not go back to sleep like that.  Something’s wrong.”  I turned on the light and your eyes were open, your pupils were fixed and dilated, and you were turning gray.  And I had been an emergency medical technician while we lived in Vermont so I had a little bit of knowledge as to what was going on.

Alan Guttmacher: You’d been able to bring me back with just sort of shoving me around, calling 911, other kinds of things – the tricks of the trade of EMT.  Then they had to give me formal CPR in the hospital, then they had to shock me back to life.  But after that, I started to get better and actually began to believe I might live through this, which was kind of nice. 

It reminds about the value of medical research.  If it hadn’t been for medical research that taught us about CPR, I wouldn’t have lived through the first heart attack.  I certainly wouldn’t have lived through it with any kind of intact neurologic system afterwards.  Probably wouldn’t have lived through it at all.  If it hadn’t been for research that led to being able to stent vessels open, I’m sure I would have been dead.  If it hadn’t been for research that led to understanding defibrillation, and first of all to give it to me externally and then be able to put these little units in people’s chests, I clearly would have been dead a couple of times.

About five years after the heart attack, I went in for my annual physical exam and got a complete blood count done – just a routine kind of check – and it came back with my white count being elevated somewhat.  And my primary care physician said, “I think maybe you have leukemia.  You should have this evaluated immediately.”  I thought, “No, I’ve just got an upper respiratory infection for the first time in several years and I’m just having a reaction to that.  But okay.”  So I called a friend and he said “Sure, we’ll have a blood test done.  I’ll get a hematologist to look at it.”  And I can remember him calling me back the next day and said, “Guess what, you actually have leukemia.”

So I remember so well coming home and telling you.

Brigid Guttmacher: We were standing in the kitchen.  I think I was at the sink finishing dishes and I had known you’d had the blood test and you stood behind me and you said that it was indeed leukemia.  And I remember looking at you and what was going through my mind, which is chattering away at different levels, is, “What does this mean?  How can this be?  Are you okay?”  And just feeling like the bottom had dropped out.  And just thinking I don’t know what this means for our lives.

Alan Guttmacher: And you looked as though the bottom had dropped out, literally.  In many ways, I look back over my life, that is – I’m not sure what the right word is – the dearest moment I’ve ever had.  Because you literally kind of collapsed against the sink, as though the stuffing had just come right out of you.  And it was the moment of my life that I knew most clearly I mattered to another human being and that I truly was loved and cared for.

This page last reviewed on February 27, 2023