The heart of it all: Don’t ignore cardiac symptoms
John Shultz thought he was OK.
John, a cardiac nurse at Geisinger Medical Center in Danville, was used to talking to patients recovering from cardiac events about how to take care of themselves after they leave the hospital. And he walks the talk – the 49-year-old maintains an active lifestyle, works out at his local gym and runs several days a week.
It was after one of those runs in November 2019 when John’s world turned upside down. The Danville resident was getting ready to take his dogs for a walk after a short run, and his wife, Angela, tagged along. He felt a bit of mild chest pain while putting on his shoes, but he didn’t think much of it.
“I thought maybe it was from working out in the cold,” says John.
John and his wife drove their four pups to a nearby stadium, where the dogs could run off leash. His chest pain started to worsen.
Once they reached their destination, John was sweating profusely with crushing chest pain and an aching pain in his left arm. At first, he was in denial, but there was no doubt now. He sat on a bench, short of breath, and said to Angela, “I think I’m having a heart attack.”
Coming back to life
John and his wife rushed to Geisinger Medical Center, where quick care and a bit of luck brought him back from the brink of death.
Scratch that — John actually died.
“I thought I was just sleeping,” recalls John.
It was the persistent care of the emergency department team that got John’s heart pumping again via CPR and defibrillator. “By the third shock I felt like a horse kicked me in the chest and I was being electrocuted,” he says.
John had a 100 percent blockage of the left anterior descending artery – a condition once called “the widow-maker.” There was a STEMI (ST segment elevation myocardial infarction) alert and the team quickly got him to the cardiac catheterization lab for stent placement.
“John is a young guy and relatively healthy, and this should have killed him,” says Dr. Sandy Green, an interventional cardiologist at the Danville hospital . “He was lucky that his wife knew what to do, he was near the hospital when it happened and we were able to get to him fast.”
Time is what really mattered here – Dr. Green says John’s heart sustained almost no damage because the team was able to triage, treat and monitor John in such a short amount of time.
“That’s the beauty of having a cardiac catheterization lab on site with a highly trained team,” says Dr. Green. “The time John came into the emergency room to the time he was wheeled into surgery was about 12 to 14 minutes.”
John says he didn’t have any symptoms prior to his cardiac event, but he does have a family history of heart issues. And while he thought he was healthy before, he’s changed other aspects of his lifestyle, like limiting alcohol consumption and reading nutrition labels, to keep his ticker in tiptop shape.
Dr. Green says cardiac events are sometimes unpredictable, but “there’s always more you can do to prevent a heart attack,” like keeping conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol levels under control.
“It’s better to get symptoms taken care of before you have a heart attack, and that means following up with your primary care doctor,” says Dr. Green.
And if you feel like you might be having a heart attack, don’t wait to get care. “A lot of people aren’t as lucky as John,” adds Dr. Green.
The road to recovery
John had his heart attack on November 3, and by November 5 he was ready to leave the hospital. After a week of rest, John was back to working on the eighth floor of Geisinger Medical Center’s Hospital for Advanced Medicine. He attends cardiac rehab a few times a week to build up his strength, and he’s looking forward to getting back to running and biking when the weather is warmer.
“I tell patients my story and they can’t believe it,” he says. “I make sure I tell our patients to follow through with cardiac rehab – it really helps.”
John says he was proud to have perfect attendance at work – until his heart attack. But he doesn’t stress about missing time. “Now I make jokes with people when they call off sick,” says John. “I say, ‘Yeah, but did you die?’”
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