Patient Stories

April 2, 2010 Was My Birthday (It Was Also the Day I Had a Heart Attack)

June 1, 2010
CHI Health

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April 2, 2010 Was My Birthday (It Was Also the Day I Had a Heart Attack)

For the past few days before my birthday I was having bad allergies and also some terrible heartburn.  I had taken Allerga D the past two days and had not slept at all because of the medicine.  My wife, Laumpoon and I went for an hour long  walk in our neighborhood that morning.  It was a beautiful morning, clear and sunny with all the trees budding.  We finished the walk and I went to see my coffee drinking buddies at the McDonalds around 8 a.m.

When I arrived the heartburn seemed to be spreading.  I got some coffee and went to my seat.  My buddy Ken Ruple had gone to get a birthday cake for me.  I sat next to Pastor Dan Wells but I was not comfortable, I went to the bathroom and started to have dry heaves.  My entire chest was burning and I thought I was having an allergy attack.   I came back and asked Pastor Dan to take me to my doctor just across the street about 100 or so feet from McDonalds.

After waiting in the office a little while, a nurse took me to a small office where she took my vitals.  Soon the doctor came in and I told him my story.  He said it probably was a reaction to the Allegra D and he had something that will take care of your problem very quickly.  He said at my age and condition, he would order an EKG “just to be safe”.

When he looked at the EKG, he said I was having a heart attack and he called 911.  He gave me a baby aspirin and a nitro glycerin tablet to put under my tongue.  Those offices are small and there were three people in the office at the time.  Before long there must have been 10 people in that small office.  Nobody was saying anything, they were all just staring at me, watching me die I suspect and that really scared me.

Soon a paramedic arrived and gave me two more baby aspirins to chew up and swallow plus he gave me another nitro pill.  They kept asking me “When were you born?!!” I answered ”April 2, 1952″.  They collectively must have had a pretty bad memories because they kept asking me that same question over and over.  Soon my family doctor Tammy Comstock came in and said, “What are you doing seeing all these other doctors behind my back?”  She hugged me and I cried a short bit.  I did not want to die and I especially did not want to die on my birthday.

My doctor called Laumpoon.  The paramedic asked me “When were your born?” I said “April 2nd, 1952, today is my birthday.”

All the women in that small room said “ah!!” at the same time and I started crying again but much longer.  Strangely, the intense burning in my chest actually felt better after I stopped crying.  Maybe I needed more air in my lungs. Soon more paramedics arrived and they put me on a gurney and moved me into the ambulance.  My wife met me just before they wheeled me into the ambulance.   She grabbed my hand and said’ “You will be OK honey!”  That was the last time I saw her till night.

They slammed the door shut and started moving.  The paramedic was trying to put an IV in my hand and I said to him, “It must be tough doing this while we are moving”.  He said, “I actually am better when we are moving”.  Just as he was putting the needle in my left hand, the ambulance driver pulled a hard 4G right-hand turn and the paramedic bent the needle a little bit.  He said something like, “hum … not too deep” and taped it up.  One of my coffee drinking buddies, Old Man Joe Palmer tells the story when he went on the ambulance, the driver hit every bump in the road.  I am sure we had the same driver.  Those ambulances are a rough riding vehicle!

We went straight to Midlands Hospital and they did a heart catherization.  They gave me some pain medicine and then cut a vein near my groin and shoved what felt like a garden hose up my vein into my heart.  I do not remember everything because of the pain medicine, but they shot some dye into my heart and determined there was too much blockage for a stent to do any good.  They left a balloon catheter in my chest cavity to pump my heart and rushed me to CHI Health Creighton University Medical Center – Bergan Mercy.  I remember the sirens and the driving rainstorm, it was quite dramatic.

We quickly arrived in some dark tunnel with what looked like blue tarp around the border of the entrance.  I knew at once, this was the big time.  Soon a very serious looking man arrived and told me I needed bypass surgery to save my life.  I did not have to have the surgery, but if I did not get it I would die.  I looked him square in the eye and said quite forcefully, “Let’s do it!” I did not need to sign anything; they just wheeled me up to the operating room.

Soon an anesthesiologist came by and asked me if I was allergic to any medicine and I said “ampecillin” he said “OK, soon you will be asleep”.  That is the last thing I remember until I came to in the cardiac ICU on, I believe, the 5th floor of the hospital.  It was dark outside.  Funny thing, I had that vision of the dark tunnel with the blue tarp just before I awoke and I was not sure if I was going into surgery or just coming out of it.  I was in surgery for five hours and I took another 45 minutes to an hour to wake up.  The burning sensation in my chest was gone and my allergies were gone.  I looked at my right hand and the IV with the bent needle was still in my hand.  Wow, two major operations in two major hospitals and that IV was still there.  That paramedic must have been really good!

There were many very good doctors, nurses, paramedics, and people who I had no idea what they were doing.  Two nurses I particularly liked were Jamie and her friend Cathy.  They knew it was my birthday so they bought me a little birthday cake.  That really moved me.  I could not eat any of it but it was the nicest birthday gift I ever received in my life.  I hoped they enjoyed the cake later.

Jamie was a very good nurse.  She fussed over every little detail of my care and I found it very reassuring.  She put the silverware on my dinner tray and she had them set vertically like you would see in a restaurant.  I absent mindlessly moved them horizontally.  She came back later, noticed they were horizontal and put them back up vertically.  She glared at me very intently and I knew exactly what she was thinking, “Don’t you dare move that silverware again Major!  Do you understand me?” I thought “Yes Ma’am!”   I made sure the silverware was always vertical with every meal after that.  I had a lot of confidence in her.  She started unplugging me from all the tubes, IVs, and other things hooked to my body.  I liked that.  There were two long tubes in my chest that I thought were for the balloon catheter which kept my heart beating on my way from Midlands to Bergan Mercy.  She was now going to take them out.  She said the best way to do it was to just rip them out fast; the pain would not last long.

She brought Cathy over to help.  I started to worry a lot, my mouth went instantly dry.  Shouldn’t that balloon be removed by a surgeon?  Should I be put under for this operation?  What would happen if the balloon got stuck on something critical like my heart or lung or something?  I did not say a word; I put my faith in Jamie and Cathy (and Jesus).  I believed Jamie knew what she was doing.  Cathy leaned against my chest and on the count of three, they both ripped those two tubes out of my chest and I felt the balloon going out of my body, through my muscle, breaking a few ribs, and finally tearing a big hole through my skin.  I screamed like a girl and I thought I was going to pass out!

When I looked at the tubes I expected to see the bloody balloon at the end of the tube but I was pleasantly surprised to see just two tubes but no balloon.  I looked at my chest for the gaping hole left by the balloon but I saw nothing near my heart.  I only saw three tiny little holes halfway between my belly button and my heart.  I also saw the huge 7 inch scar where they split my chest open to do open heart surgery but that scar was wired and glued together.   I seemed OK.   There were no other wounds!  I concluded right then and there they must have taken the balloon out when they performed open heart surgery earlier and I only imagined the balloon ripping out of my chest!  I was so relieved and very happy that Jamie was so good.  No nurse came close to Jamie in my estimation and I sure had fun with her the rest of the shift.  Even when she removed the catheter that allowed me to pee, it did not hurt much.  I want to thank her and everyone else who kept me from dying on my birthday.

I am extremely lucky to be alive but I did make a key decision that you might need to make too.   I recognized I needed medical attention and took decisive action before it was too late.  I thought my heart attack was an allergy attack and I asked a friend to drive me to my doctor’s office.   My symptoms were not “classic heart attack”.  It was a burning sensation in the chest that felt like heart burn all over my chest.  Women’s symptoms can be even more vague.  Any time you do not feel right in your chest, seek medical attention immediately.  It could save your life.  Pastor Dan’s wife scolded him for not taking me directly to the hospital but I found out later that would have been a mistake.  It is better to call 911 and wait for a paramedic than to take a heart attack victim to the hospital yourself.  The paramedics have drugs that can stop a heart attack or limit the damage to the heart that you will not have.  The paramedics will call the hospital and get them ready before you arrive.  Let’s face it, who wants to go to surgery with a doctor who is cold and has to decide if you are having a heart attack or just having heartburn?

My recovery is coming along well.  My surgeon said he did not see any damage to my heart during the operation and my EKG came back normal.  I hope we find I do not have any damage to my heart when we do any future stress tests.  I cannot drive until 2 May and I cannot lift anything heavier than 10 pounds until my doctor says I can.  That will be no earlier than 13 May 2010 when I see my cardiologist.  I am walking 35 minutes at least once per day (as often as 3 times/day) for 6 days a week.  Cardiac rehab told me NOT to push too hard physically.  I pushed too hard once and now know why you should rest some.  It lets the muscles regrow again.  If you do not rest it hurts and makes you very tired. I am on a low-salt, low-fat, heart-healthy diet.  Everything that tastes good I cannot eat.  I have been home for about two weeks now and still have no allergy problems.  I feel pretty good but get tired easily and cannot walk as fast as Laumpoon.  I used to lap her two or three times per hour in the gym.  Now she just smiles as she passes me.  I also nap some in the day.  I have been reborn and given a second chance at life.  Many people do not get a second chance at life and am very grateful to the Man upstairs and his many helpers in the hospitals and rescue units in this world.  I might even go to church again on my one day of rest per week.

Rick Savage Major USAF (retired)

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