Heart Attack Grill Scare: Why Shutting Down Would Be Responsible

OPINION

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A customer eating at the grease-fest known as the Heart Attack Grill in Las Vegas was rushed to a hospital on Saturday after suffering from, you guessed it, a heart attack.

Witnesses at the hospital-themed restaurant, where scantily-clad nurses (waitresses) take prescriptions (orders) from their patients (customers), said a man in his 40s started showing symptoms of a heart attack while eating the grill's notorious Triple Bypass Burger, which comes with three half-pound burger patties, 12 slices of bacon, three slices of American cheese, red onion, tomato, and the restaurant's special sauce.

He was having the sweats and shaking, said Nurse Bridgett, a waitress at the Heart Attack Grill.

When the man started complaining of chest pains, Nurse Bridgett went into the back to fetch Doctor Jon Basso, who opened the original restaurant in Arizona in 2005. Basso is not a real doctor.

One of the nurses came back to me and said, 'Dr. Jon, we've got a patient who's in trouble, Basso said. The gentleman could barely talk. He was sweating, suffering.

Basso then called 911 and the man -- still yet to be identified -- was rushed to a local hospital by paramedics and EMTs. Local news station KVUU reported the man had survived and was recovering from his near-death encounter.

Basso says that while he feels for the customer, he has no plans to shut down the restaurant, or trim the fat from the menu after Saturday's scare.

I actually felt horrible for the gentleman because the tourists were taking photos of him as if it were some type of stunt, Basso said. Even with our own morbid sense of humor, we would never pull a stunt like that.

Morbid indeed. The Heart Attack Grill has repeatedly been scrutinized for its sense of humor, which borders the line between being comically unhealthy and dangerously unhealthy. Either way, it's unhealthy.

While no one has died at the Heart Attack Grill -- yet -- the restaurant's 6'8, 575-pound spokesman Blair River died last March at the age of 29. He died from pneumonia after catching the flu.

Every single person cared about Blair, Basso said. Had he been thinner, he most probably would have survived that pneumonia, and that's a hard fact that I'm not here to deny. I loved working with him. My conscience is simply this: What would Blair hovering above me want me to do right now? Blair would say this: 'Put back on the stethoscope. Let's keep being the doctor that everyone loves to hate, because that really gives the message out.'

One week after River's death, Basso found a new obese spokesperson in Ernie Heart, who was actually the grill's original spokesperson but had to step down temporarily to have heart surgery.

Even though my cardiologist and my wife tell me not to come after surviving a coma and multiple heart surgeries, I still come, Heart said. I enjoy the burgers.

When Basso opened the original grill in 2005, he openly said he hoped to serve the equivalent of nutritional pornography, where food is so bad for you it's shocking.

The restaurant encourages you to make the baddest, most unhealthy decisions. If you order a particularly big meal, like a Quadruple Bypass Burger with a butterfat milkshake and Flatliner Fries, which are cooked in pure lard, your lovely nurse will put you in a wheelchair and wheel you out to your car.

Furthermore, if you rack up enough pounds -- 350, to be exact -- your entire meal at the Heart Attack Grill is on the house.

Like Las Vegas itself, the Heart Attack Grill is where sinners go to sin. Upon entering the restaurant, customers are required to don hospital gowns over their clothes while sexy nurses take their pulses before their orders.

The nurses, which wear high heels, thigh-high stockings and cleavage-bearing dresses, have prompted complaints -- not about their skimpy attire -- but rather over the restaurant's flippant use of the word nurse, which borders illegality. Various nursing advocate groups have attacked the restaurant, and Arizona's Attorney General told Basso that the title nurse can only be used for someone who has a valid nursing license.

Why do they have to denigrate the nursing profession and sexualize nursing? said Kira Wilder, a nurse from Scottsdale, Ariz. It's just not necessary.

Basso, who is used to criticism, easily shrugs off the complaints.

If anything, I think it glorifies nurses to be thought of as a physically attractive and desirable individual, Basso said. There's a Faye Dunaway, Florence Nightingale hipness to it. Nobody wants to think of themselves as some old battle ax who changes bedpans for a living.

Many of the nurses say they don't have a problem with it either.

They definitely look at us, but they're guys, said Courtney Chapman, a 20-year-old waitress at the grill. If our butts are coming out the bottom of our skirts, and our boobs are coming out the top of our shirts, we're kind of asking for it.

Instead of relenting to the Attorney General, now Basso just puts asterisks next to the nurse titles upon each reference.

The use of the word 'nurse' above is only intended as a parody, Basso said. None of the women pictured on our Web site actually have any medical training, nor do they attempt to provide any real medical services. it should be made clear that the Heart Attack Grill and its employees do NOT offer any therapeutic treatments (aside from laughter) whatsoever.

And if the nurses don't give customers a heart attack, the restaurant will. The Heart Attack Grill offers unhealthy choices around every corner. There are the cheeseburgers, which literally drip with fat and grease, and the fries, which are cooked in lard. The restaurant also serves, beer, tequila, energy drinks like Jolt, a Mexican-made Coca-Cola that's made with real sugar, no-filter cigarettes, and even candy cigarettes made with sugar and gum. Normal meals at the Heart Attack Grill easily exceed 8,000 calories.

In all fairness to Basso and his Heart Attack Grill, the restaurant does warn customers before they enter. A sign on the door clearly says, Caution! This establishment is bad for your health.

Despite health and safety warnings, Basso's decadent scheme is working, and his restaurant has become an extremely successful outfit. Yet, despite its success, the Heart Attack Grill should shut down anyway.

I can hear the arguments mounting already: But Dave, America is the land of the free. People should be able to eat whatever they want, wherever they want, however they want.

America is all of those things, and it affords its citizens all of those freedoms. Basso has the right to own his unhealthy restaurant, and diners have the right to walk through the front door and eat a Quadruple Bypass Burger.

It says right on the door, it's hazardous to your health, said CJ Beeman, a diner at the grill.

There's also nothing stopping Basso from opening Heart Attack Grills around the country. Yet, Basso owes it to himself, his patrons, his staff, and his restaurant, not to spread the wealth.

The restaurant is a fun gimmick. It's fun to see the nurses, take a bite of a sandwich that could quite possibly kill you, and get wheeled out to your car. But what happens in Vegas should stay in Vegas.

What Basso is doing with the heart-attack grill is funny at first, but ultimately, it's socially irresponsible. Obesity is not a joke; on the contrary, it's a serious epidemic that our country now faces. Obesity is linked to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, breathing problems, some cancers, and poor self-esteem. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one-third of all adults in the U.S. are obese, but even worse, 17 percent of all children in the U.S. are obese. While adults suffer, the disease is particularly painful for children; adults should be setting a good example for their children, instead of stuffing their faces and telling their kids, Do as I say, not as I do.

A number of efforts are trying to stem the tide. First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move! initiative hopes to solve childhood obesity within a generation by emphasizing pro-active solutions for eating right and staying active, but it's still not enough. One movement can't stop this disease, which can affect entire families for generations.

Yet, instead of admitting wrongdoing, Basso claims that he actually helping the obesity epidemic with his version of shock therapy.

I hope that every single person out there comes in and buys a hamburger and t-shirt from me, but you know what? I am saying loudly and as clearly as any business in America can: This is dangerous, Basso said.

Unfortunately, Basso shouldn't leave the choice up to customers. Obesity stems from overeating, which can easily become an addiction for some folks like the company's own spokesperson, Ernie Heart. Restaurant owners like Basso should instead focus on the quality of taste instead of quantity of calories.

Restaurants don't need to bend to the will of the nation, or anybody for that matter -- save health inspectors, ironically -- but serving food and offering a fun experience should not involve major risk-taking. The danger is fun at first, but at the end of the day, this restaurant can literally take years off one's life. Just because no one has died in the restaurant doesn't mean anyone has died from the restaurant. Most of the restaurant's patrons are heavy-set men, many of whom are already obese, but they clearly do not understand the point of the restaurant, and they don't understand what they're doing to their bodies and their families. The nurses, the food, the danger -- it's meant to be a playful gimmick, an experience, not a lifestyle.

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