For the third night in a row, Mike Dempsey felt awful. He was uncomfortable and experiencing chest pain. He remembered what his children always said to do when he had a question: “Just Google it, Dad.”
Mike logged onto his computer, went to Google and typed in “heart attack.” He didn’t like what he read. “I thought, ‘oh, I’m spooking myself,’ ” he said. But when the pain radiated all the way down his arm, he knew he couldn’t blame it on his occasional acid reflux. He called out to his sleeping wife, “I’m going to the hospital,” rushed out the door and drove himself to the Emergency Department at Alegent Creighton Health Bergan Mercy Medical Center.
He knows now he shouldn’t have driven himself to the emergency department: “That was my first dumb move.” (Always call 911 when you experience any heart attack symptoms). And he admits he didn’t have to drive the six miles from his home in Papillion to Bergan Mercy. But Bergan Mercy felt familiar. It was where his children were born and where he took them through the years for care. His wife called him as he was driving, concerned that he had rushed out of the house: “Where are you? What did you say to me?” He told her: “I’m on my way to the hospital. I don’t know if I’m having a heart attack or not.”
Three-and-a-half days later, he was in surgery, having a quadruple bypass. He’s still incredulous: “Everyone was shocked it happened and that includes me.”
Mike’s never been overweight and has always been active. He coached basketball for 30 years and has been athletic director at Gross Catholic High School for four. He’s also assistant principal and a graduate of the school.
Two years earlier he had heart tests done and his cardiologist told him: “You are fine. You look good. You’re in shape.”
Genetics caught up with him at age 54. Mike’s father had a bypass when he was about 50 and his older brother had a stent several years ago. But it was still a surprise when the chest pains started. Mike felt the first pains on a Tuesday night and wondered if he was just anxious about a speech he was giving the next day. It didn’t make sense though because he’d given many speeches before and this one was in front of the Metro Basketball Coaches Association, people he knew. Wednesday at the same time—about 10 p.m.—he had the same pains. This time he wondered if he was just nervous about a speech he was scheduled to give to the Gross High faculty on the next morning. “I kept thinking, ‘This is really strange. Why do I have this pain? Am I just anxious?'” He didn’t sleep well. Then Thursday — again at about 10 p.m. — he “felt funny” and the chest pains started. That’s when he turned to Google and realized that what was happening was serious.
Mike remembers the Bergan Mercy staff doing blood work and an echocardiogram. What they found convinced them to admit him. Mike says his main artery was clogged.
“It was the worst one that could be clogged. They call it the widow-maker,” he said. “So they told me, ‘This is an emergency. We’re not letting you out of the hospital.'”
He didn’t have a lot of time to panic, much less do any research, before the surgery on Monday. “It happened so quickly, it didn’t hit me for several days.” He said he was fortunate because his four children and two grandchildren kept him distracted. “Also, I was sedated, so I didn’t obsess. But I was praying and I was worried about my kids.” He says his surgeon, Thomas Langdon, M.D., reassured him and explained what would happen and why. Mike knew he didn’t have any other medical issues — like diabetes or obesity — that would complicate his surgery and recovery.
The surgery was successful. Mike laughs now: “The Lord said, ‘You’re plugged up. It’s time to get your roto-rooter.'”
He couldn’t be more enthusiastic about the care he received: “The nurses were just fantastic. The first or second night, everything was racing through my mind. I knew I could have passed away. I was thinking all the ‘what ifs.’ But one nurse helped me, telling me to think of it as a second chance and that the worst was over. She told me, “Now’s the time to look forward.”
He appreciated the helpful follow-up calls from nurses and praises the staff at the Bergan Mercy Cardiac Rehab Center: “The nurses were unbelievable. They were so warm. There were four ladies down there. I looked forward to going! The whole experience from A to Z was fantastic. I even took the survey afterwards and I don’t usually.”
Having family around also helped his recovery. His grandkids were nearby: “Waking up to a smiling baby made me better faster than anything.” He felt great, but people kept asking him “How’s your anxiety? How are you feeling mentally?” “I thought it was a strange question,” he said.
Then he found out what they were asking about. The anxiety hit. A few months later, Mike started having chest pains again. “I learned what was normal will never be normal again.”
His cardiologist, Shirley Huerter, M.D., helped him deal with the pains and anxiety. She says most people who are first diagnosed with heart disease have difficulty deciding what is normal and what to worry about. Mike was “hyper-aware. I know he was anxious and afraid” and she tried to reassure him that some of what he was experiencing is quite normal. She says he was relatively young and “it’s always hard to sort through when you have discomfort in the chest.”
Mike had two stents in a two-week period and continued to experience anxiety and chest pains. He was scheduled to go to an athletic directors’ convention in San Antonio and cancelled the trip. As soon as he did, the chest pains went away.
He feels better now that he’s back to work and says having his children and grandchildren around helps a lot. He’s lost 15 pounds, eats healthier and exercises six days a week. He also takes low-dose anxiety medication and prays. “The anxiety is lessening.”
He advises others to get help immediately — not wait like he did —if they have symptoms. “I’ve had a lot of people asking, ‘What did it feel like?’ It was a pain I’ve never experienced before; pretty massive. Not a twinge or a muscle contraction.”
And he says know your family history and be health-conscious at a younger age. Don’t wait until you’re 54, like he was. Then he smiles at what he went through — and survived: “I had a quadruple bypass. That’s better than Tom Osborne. He had three.”