Downey is living proof it pays to be cautious

Beth Bragg
The blockage was in Maria Downey's left anterior descending coronary artery -- the artery that comes up if you Google "widow maker."
BILL ROTH / Anchorage Daily News

Over the course of a broadcast journalism career that has spanned more than 30 years, Maria Downey has reported her share of medical stories that serve as cautionary tales. When the stories are about matters of the heart, they have a common thread: Don't ignore warning signs.

Now that she is the subject of a story rather than the storyteller, Downey would like to report that when she had her own heart scare last month, she followed the advice she has given viewers. But she didn't. It took pressure from family members for her to seek help earlier this month when she experienced chest pain.

And that is why, as the city prepares for Saturday's annual Heart Run that is both a harbinger of summer and a fundraiser for heart disease, another cautionary tale is in order.

"Even though I was aware that if you are feeling this pain, you go to the emergency room or call 911, it still took my husband and daughter to convince me," Downey said, six weeks after a surgeon installed a stent in an artery that was 95 percent blocked.

Downey, 53 and a longtime news anchor at KTUU-Channel 2, wasn't seemingly at risk for a heart attack or heart disease. She's active and fit. Has never smoked a cigarette. No family history of heart trouble, although doctors blame genetics for a slightly elevated cholesterol level. No red meat, because she's allergic, and at times she has avoided pork and chicken too. If she has to hit a fast-food place, she opts for salad or grilled chicken.

And so on that Friday in March when Downey first felt severe pressure in the middle of her chest, it got her attention, but it didn't spur her to action. She has had esophageal issues in the past and thought maybe they were to blame for the pain.

"I felt that first sudden pain that Friday and didn't say anything," Downey said. "The next day I had another little bout and on Sunday it happened twice in one day and it got worse. It took my breath away, it was that severe. And I was sweating."

She was a little mad too. That Sunday was the rare occasion when three of the four members of the Downey family -- Maria, husband Ron and 25-year-old daughter Erin -- were free for the day and intended spending it together.

"It was a nice day," Downey said, "and I remember saying I do not want to spend the day at the emergency room."

But Ron and Erin insisted and Downey, who was having a hard time catching her breath, relented.

"Luckily I went to the emergency room, and there's actually a little lesson here," she said. "Everything in the ER looked good. The blood test didn't show my blood was out of whack, the EKG was normal, but I was really lucky that the emergency room doctor and cardiologist on call, Lisa Gray, were persistent and said, 'Let's take it a step farther.'

"I went back the next morning and did the stress test. All of a sudden, she said 'Just stop.' Basically, she stopped me from having a heart attack. They gave me nitro and stopped it.

"Within two hours of that, I was in and out of the procedure and left the next day."

Downey took the rest of the week off and was back on TV by Monday evening.

The blockage was in Downey's left anterior descending coronary artery -- the artery that comes up if you Google "widow maker." It's called the widow maker because most of the time, a person with a 95 percent blockage in that artery doesn't survive the resulting heart attack.

Today, Downey says she feels fine -- better than she had in the weeks leading up to her surgery.

"Some of my friends call me this tough Sicilian broad, because I just keep going -- you do what you have to do,'' Downey said. "I didn't realize until afterwards that I was feeling tired and rundown, that I was breathing hard going up and down steps.''

Downey, who arrived in Anchorage as a 22-year-old newlywed and worked four years at Channel 13 before joining Channel 2 in 1985, said she isn't comfortable being the story instead of the storyteller. But she agreed to tell her tale because the awareness it raises might save a life.

"I prefer to do the interviewing. I feel real nervous being interviewed," Downey said. "But as moms and women, we look out for everybody else, and even that day, we all had a free day together and I didn't want to ruin it. It's more important that we respond to these signals so we have more time to spend together."

Reach Beth Bragg at or 257-4335.

33rd annual Heart Run

• Saturday at the UAA Arts Building beginning at 9:30 a.m. with the 5-kilometer race. At 10 a.m., an untimed 5-K and 3-K begin.

• Friday bib pickup from 4-6:30 p.m. at the King Career Center (2650 E. Northern Lights).

• Day-of-race registration for the untimed 5-K and 3-K Saturday from 7:30-9 a.m. at the UAA Arts Building. Registration for the timed 5-K is closed.

Alaska Heart Run website
Anchorage Daily News