Walking Off a Heart Attack in Croatia


Last Updated on May 2, 2024 by Grant

Yep, you read that title correctly. We are tough, but until a few years ago, we never would have described ourselves as “walking off a heart attack” tough. That’s right, Grant had a heart attack and we kept on going!

Of course, we had no idea that’s what was going on at the time, which makes this event all the more interesting!

On July 20, 2015, our lives changed and we had no idea. We were nearing the end of a month-long trip through Eastern Europe. Our trip had already taken us through Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary and Slovenia. We had just a couple more days in Croatia before heading home.

A stone cathedral surrounded by stone streets.
You might recognize the streets of Dubrovnik and its cathedral from the show “Game of Thrones.” Dubrovnik doubles as Kings Landing in the series.

We started the day in Split, waking up early to catch the ferry to Dubrovnik. On the ferry ride, Grant and I both complained of not feeling well. We blamed motion sickness, little to no air circulation and being tired from a month of traveling.

Upon our arrival in Dubrovnik, we caught a bus to Old Town. To our delight, we felt almost immediately better after getting off the ferry. We enjoyed lunch at a small cafe and began taking in the history and uniqueness of Dubrovnik.

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The Moment

After lunch, we did what we almost always do and walked through town towards our hotel. As we started a small uphill climb, Grant mentioned he didn’t feel well again and was having some trouble breathing. We kept going for another minute or two, until Grant had to sit and rest.

This is VERY unlike him. Grant can typically push through just about anything. It was hot, so I nervously left him sitting and ran back a bit to get a couple bottles of water. We figured we were both probably a bit dehydrated.

As I very impatiently waited in line to get some water, I wondered what was going on. I really had no idea what it could be at this point. I just hoped that my husband would be conscious when I returned to him. Thankfully, he was!

A stone bridge going to an arched entry to a walled city with a bell tower above it.
This is the spot where Grant had his heart attack.

After a few minutes of rest and hydration, Grant felt better and we continued on. He was moving slower than normal but seemed to be ok. He probably wasn’t telling me exactly how he felt. In fact, he probably wasn’t even admitting to himself how he felt.

It wasn’t long before we realized that the “road” to our hotel was actually just a really long staircase uphill! We started up slowly, with Grant having to stop and rest sometimes every couple of steps.

While Grant may not be in the best shape in the world, this was very out of the ordinary for him. We were both concerned, but he was able to keep moving, so we did… just very slowly.

How Bad is This?

The moment I knew it was really bad was when Grant actually took me up on my offer to carry his backpack. Yep… Grant took off his 20-25 pound pack and let me carry both mine and his. I offered because I knew I could and would carry it if that’s what I needed to do. I was not actually expecting him to agree, because that just isn’t in Grant’s nature.

By this point, we knew we had made a mistake by walking and not getting a cab. Unfortunately, we were on a staircase “road,” which meant getting a cab at that point was not an option. So, we continued to “hobble” up the stairs. Grant was stopping to rest because he could barely breathe. I was stopping to rest because I was carrying nearly 50 pounds worth of backpacks.

Despite the fact that it took WAY longer than it should have, we finally made it to our hotel, Peric Rooms Dubrovnik. I can only imagine what the owner thought as we limped into the courtyard! Thankfully, he was very welcoming and gracious, getting us both a glass of water almost immediately. We rested, filled out the required paperwork and rejoiced when we finally made it to our room!

Much Needed Rest

Needless to say, we spent the rest of the afternoon and evening hanging out at the hotel. Thankfully, we had a fabulous view of the sea and Lokrum Island, just off the coast. We truly enjoyed our room here, especially the balcony and the view!

The balcony view from our room in Dubrovnik.
The balcony view from our room in Dubrovnik.

Of course, we needed food and, more importantly, drinks. So, I took off on my own to find the nearest grocery store. I can handle myself just fine, but I really don’t like exploring unfamiliar places on my own. Especially when my husband is suffering through some sort of currently unidentified medical event.

I managed to find the grocery and stock up on a few things. We spent the rest of the day resting, snacking and enjoying the views! It really wasn’t a bad first day in Dubrovnik, despite the issues.

The Dreaded Self-Diagnosis

While I was out buying provisions, Grant looked up his symptoms. Of course, he found it could be anything from indigestion to dehydration to a heart attack.

Based on the heat, humidity and timing, we really felt like this was dehydration or indigestion. He also didn’t have any of the usual additional symptoms that would be more typical of a heart attack, such as radial arm pain, back pain or jaw pain.

A hazy sunset with a mountain in the foreground and the sea with islands in the midground.
The view of Dubrovnik from Mt. Srd at sunset. Note the smokey haze from the nearby forest fires.

We later learned that there was a forest fire nearby, so that, too, led us to dehydration and we knew lower-quality air would cause breathing problems. Grant was in a house fire when he was in college and is a bit susceptible to smoke ever since.

We did briefly consider trying to find a doctor. But, Grant was feeling better after resting in the air conditioning for a while, so we decided it wasn’t necessary. We even went out and about exploring Dubrovnik the following day.

You can read more about our day in Dubrovnik here.

Getting a Real Diagnosis

After two nights in Dubrovnik, we began the journey home. We had one travel day to get us back to Prague and another back to Atlanta.

Bell towers over the orange roofs of Dubrovnik
Walking along the city wall is a must for excellent views of the city like this.

Grant felt ok during all of this and was able to truck right along without any difficulty.

Back at home, we were eager to get back into our normal routine. We got up early and went out for our usual five-mile walk. Grant did this without too many problems but was still feeling some chest pressure, so we decided to call the doctor.

Of course, at the word “chest” they tell you to just go straight to the emergency room. It didn’t feel too bad, so we stopped for lunch at Chick-Fil-A before heading to the hospital. I mean… we were out of the country for a month; we missed our Chick-Fil-A!

Once at the hospital, Grant said “chest pressure” again and back he went! You never really want to be the person that gets the immediate treatment at the Emergency Room, because that’s usually bad. It was nice to not have to wait, however.

Grant explained everything that happened a few days before and the nurses and doctors hooked him up to all kinds of machines and ran many different tests. Despite the fact that we knew it was a possibility, we were actually really surprised when the doctor said, “Yep, you had a heart attack.”

Heart Attack!?!?

The next few hours just flew by! Before we knew it, Grant was in the cardiac catheterization lab and I was waiting not knowing what was going on.

Recovering after a heart attack.
Grant in the hospital following his heart attack. He had a stent put in his right coronary artery.

I spent roughly an hour in the waiting room, not knowing enough to even know if I should be scared. My friends asked why I didn’t call them sooner. Honestly, I didn’t know what to tell them.

The doctors discovered that one of Grant’s arteries was 100% blocked. Thankfully, the other two were completely clear! Everything went well in the cath lab, the doctors put in a stent and Grant was back in a room in no time.

Then it was time to call family and friends. Those were definitely not fun or easy phone calls. At least by that point, we knew that Grant would be ok!

Modern Medicine

I know it may sound crazy, but once we found out Grant had a heart attack, we actually were really glad that we didn’t go to the doctor in Croatia. I’m sure that medical technology in Croatia is ok but I doubt that it is as good as it is in the US.

Grant might have ended up having open-heart surgery. I’m certain we wouldn’t have been on a flight home “on time.” I don’t even want to think about how much it would have cost us since we didn’t have travel insurance.

A hazy view of the coast with a lot of small boats docked near a small beach.
Even at 7:30 in the morning, you can tell how hot and hazy (from the smoke) Dubrovnik was.

As it was, Grant was home within about 24 hours of us walking into the ER. In the cath lab, the doctors cleared the blocked artery and inserted a stent through the femoral artery. This was actually the “complicated way;” entering through a wrist vein was the preferred method, but Grant’s wrists are too thin and boney.

Grant had a heart attack on a Monday in Croatia. We went to the doctor on Friday at home near Atlanta. He was at work on the following Monday. He was moving slowly, but he was at work. And we soon learned that most of the “moving slowly” was due to some meds that weren’t yet optimized.

Life After a Heart Attack

Life really didn’t change too much for us, but there have been some adjustments in the last couple of years. The biggest change is that Grant is now taking several medications every day. I know this isn’t too unusual for someone in their 40s, but it still isn’t fun.

In terms of everyday life, the biggest change, other than the medication, is not eating red meat. Grant is a huge red meat lover, so that has been quite an adjustment! Ground turkey, chicken and pork are a much larger part of our diet now.

Grant biting into a massive turkey let in a restaurant.
While Bonnie loves her Dole Whip, Grant’s weakness is a roasted turkey leg. There is just something so carnivorous about it.

At work, Grant switched from teaching drama to literature. This actually was something that he planned to do even before we left for the Eastern Europe trip. But, realistically, we aren’t sure it would have happened without the heart attack.

Teaching literature is much less time-consuming since there are no after-school rehearsals. This allows us more time to work out and stay healthy. Less stress is a good thing too!

Most importantly, by having more time since we are no longer spending several hours at rehearsal most days, we were able to start this blog! Previously, we did some blogging on TravelPod (which no longer exists) for our family and friends. Starting our own site and really getting serious about it has been a great way to combine our loves for teaching, traveling and writing.

Grant and Bonnie Sinclair walking on the Valley Loop Trail in Yosemite National Park, California.
We love getting out on the trails. Following the heart attack, we are much more likely to choose a relatively flat and easy hike than a strenuous one.

In terms of travel, we definitely wanted to stay within the country for the first year or so until we really knew how/if this would affect us on the road. Thankfully, we haven’t had any issues while traveling. Still, we are much more conservative about where we hike and how strenuous of a hike we are willing to do.

Travel Insurance

The biggest lesson learned from all of this is how important travel insurance is! In the past, we have purchased insurance for flights and cruises, but never to cover us for a full overseas trip. We will NEVER take that risk again. Not only because Grant is now more at risk for another heart attack, but because we don’t want to be afraid to go to the doctor if we really feel it is necessary.

Grant and Bonnie standing in a crowd in front of the Trevi Fountain at night. The fountain is lit up.
Grant and Bonnie at the Trevi Fountain

It has now been two years and we haven’t had the need for individual travel insurance yet. But, when we do take our next overseas trip, we will be doing our research and purchasing insurance for sure! And, of course, we will share our travel insurance findings with you.

In the meantime, take our advice and buy travel insurance if you are going out of the county! There are several companies with varying costs and benefits. While we can’t give a specific recommendation at this time, we certainly recommend travel insurance of some sort.

Our Travel Style

While this was a big deal, we are very thankful that it wasn’t more serious than it was. Truly, the thought of having open-heart surgery in a hospital in Croatia is terrifying! But, we haven’t really let it slow us down.

Since 2015, we have traveled all over the US, gone on a cruise and taken a school trip to Italy. We just have to make sure we have enough medication for the entire trip!

This pill box makes it easy to organize the medication following the heart attack.
Grant’s pillbox. The removable days make it easy to carry a small amount when we are only traveling for a day or two.

This pill organizer makes it easy for Grant to organize all the medication he needs for the week. And we love that we can take just one or two days with us when necessary.

We do have a few more considerations when making travel plans now, but, thankfully, it hasn’t affected our travel style! If anything, our perseverance on the day of the heart attack has stuck with us.

When things get tough, we take it slow. And we help each other. We are not afraid to change our plans if that is what is best for us. But we don’t give up just because it’s tough. We’ve always been kind of stubborn like that.

Travel Resources
What do you use to find a flight?

We use Skyscanner to find deals on flights. Skyscanner has a great interface and compares tons of airlines for the best pricing and routing. That said, it does not always have every airline and some airlines will have better deals on their website. Still, Skyscanner is a great place to start.
Click here to search for a flight.

What do you use to find a hotel?

We typically stay at Hilton properties, so we use the Hilton website. You can find good Hilton Honors discounts or AAA discounts for a hotel there. We make great use of our free night certificates from our Hilton Honors American Express.
Click here to book a Hilton property.

If there are no Hilton properties available, we use TripAdvisor to read reviews and book the hotel. We find we can get the best price that way.
Click here to search for a hotel.

We recently partnered with Stay22 to add interactive maps to each of our destination posts. This will allow you to see a plethora of hotels and vacation rentals all in one responsive map of the area.

What if I need more space than I can get at a hotel?

We use Vrbo for the times when we have rented a cabin for a weekend getaway, like this cabin in Townsend, TN, or needed to rent a house for a large family vacation. We had a great experience with them in terms of refunding deposits when COVID hit and will continue to use them.
Click here to search for a vacation rental.

Who do you use for rental cars?

As a general rule, we book with Hertz for rental cars. We have had nothing but good experiences with them. Plus, we really like unlimited mileage and not worrying about crossing state lines. We have even rented from Hertz overseas in both Slovenia and Croatia.
Click here to book a rental car.

How about booking a cruise?

We have found some amazing prices for booking a cruise through Cruise Direct. We have saved a lot of money on our cruises compared to what we found elsewhere, making a last-minute Bahamas cruise even cheaper.
Click here to book a cruise.

What if I want to rent an RV?

We highly recommend Outdoorsy for RV rentals. We rented a camper van for a week to visit Rocky Mountain National Park for the elk rut and Custer State Park for the Buffalo Round-Up and had a blast. The program was easy to use and we really enjoyed the freedom of having a camper van for that trip.
Click here to rent an RV.

What do you use for booking tours?

We don’t often book tours. Typically, we like to do stuff on our own. That said, there are some experiences you can’t have any other way. So, when we do want to book a tour, we always check Viator first.
Click here to book a tour.

Do you use anything to get discounts on the road?

We make extensive use of both Good Sam and AAA on the road. Good Sam is normally regarded as a discount card for RVers at campgrounds and Camping World but anyone can use the 5 cents off a gallon at the pump at both Pilot and Flying J.
Click here to get a Good Sam membership.
We have had AAA as long as we have been married and it has more than paid for itself in discounts at hotels, aside from the peace of mind of having roadside assistance. Add in paper maps and the ability to get an international driver’s license and it is more than worth it for any traveler out there.
Click here to get a AAA membership.

Our experience as Grant unknowingly suffered a heart attack in Croatia. What we learned and how it has affected our future travels and everyday life.
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