Serious as a Heart Attack

Editor’s note: A year ago, I was lucky enough to have a heart attack in my office at Cypress Creek EMS. No, having a heart attack was not lucky. The fortunate part was where I had the heart attack, because I was very nearly somewhere else.  – Norm Uhl

When I started my job as the Public Information Officer for Cypress Creek EMS in May of 2015, one of the big benefits was that my new office was only eight miles from my house. After driving into Houston since moving to Texas in 1985, my daily nightmare-of-a-commute was finally over. I would no longer have to drive into the city unless I wanted to….and I didn’t want to.

But, then I received a jury summons. I was not happy about having to drive into the city but public service is important so I sucked it up and made the trip on the morning of June 30, 2015. As it turned out, I never left the jury assembly room and was dismissed shortly after 11:00 a.m.

Half the day was gone, so I could go home. My wife was at the zoo with our grandson, so it would be nice and quiet. (At my age, a nap always sounds good). Or…. I could go back to work. I did have some things I was working on that I wanted to finish up. I opted for work, grabbed some lunch on the way and went to my office at Cypress Creek’s Administration and Education Building. That decision literally saved my life.

During the drive, I started feeling a little dizzy. It didn’t seem unusual. I’d had vertigo in the past due to a recurring inner ear issue, which has since been diagnosed as Ménière’s Disease.

At work, the dizziness increased. Then, I felt a hot flash coming on followed immediately by nausea. A fellow worker passing by said that I didn’t look good and asked if I was okay. “Oh, it’s just an inner ear issue I’ve dealt with before,” I said. That co-worker was our Community Relations Manager, Holly Pichette, who is also a paramedic. She came back with a cold compress and water.

Her instincts told her that it was NOT just an inner ear issue so, unbeknownst to me at the time, she went and got our Senior Clinical Supervisor Rob Atripaldi (the guy who teaches our medics) and our Special Ops Director Wren Nealy (also a paramedic).

They came into my office with an EKG while Holly sneaked an Automated Electronic Defibrillator into the room. Yes, Holly. I did see that.

Next thing I knew, they had me on the floor hooking me up to a 12 lead EKG. Wires were attached all over my chest and to my arms and legs. I had written enough about our advanced severe heart attack protocols to know what they were looking for, but Rob downplayed it saying, “It’s just a precaution.” I would later learn that they had also attached defib pads, just in case.

After Rob saw the EKG results, he calmly but firmly said I’d being going to the hospital to get checked out.  He was still downplaying it, but he was periodically spraying nitroglycerin under my tongue and I was now feeling a searing burn in my chest like heartburn on steroids.  Medics Jason Stewart and Amber Reese suddenly showed up in my office with a stretcher and off I went in an ambulance. I had written enough about our units to know that they are actually Mobile Intensive Care Units, but that just doesn’t roll off the tongue like the word “Ambulance.”

Where do you want to go, said Rob? Dr. Vartanian (the CCEMS Medical Director) is on duty at Houston Northwest Medical Center today, he added.”  I answered, “Let’s go see Dr. V.”

Upon arrival, I saw Dr. V. for about 2 seconds. He waved at me as I passed by him on the way to the heart cath lab. I knew enough about our protocols to know that we were bypassing the E.R. and this was now officially SERIOUS.

The Cath team was waiting and began prepping me for anything that might happen including shaving my groin and my chest. That’s not a good sign, I thought.  Actually, it was kind of amazing I could think at all.  By now, I had been dosed with various drugs including morphine. I was told it not only helps with pain but it also dilates blood vessels and improves blood flow.

The doctor decided to go in through my right wrist artery to see what was going on. I was in and out of consciousness. I woke up at one point feeling that same searing pain in my chest I’d felt before. I spoke up and the doctor said, “Yes, I know…that’s where I’m working right now.”

I was surprised that Dr. Bruce Lachterman was already working inside my heart. He had found a 95% + blockage in the artery known ominously as the “widowmaker” and a 45%+ blockage in the branch off that. He immediately started inflating the cath balloon to open the blockages and placed stents to hold my arteries open. I would end up with a total of 4 stents, all done through my wrist.  Normally, I’m told, the doctor would switch over to a larger, upper-leg artery. Apparently, due to the seriousness of my blockages, he decided to save time and do it all through my wrist.

Colleagues watching the camera view of the procedure in another room would later tell me about the doctor making multiple attempts to snake the heart catheter around one particularly tight turn. At least one of them thought he would not make it and he’d have to crack my chest and do by-pass surgery, instead. After all, my chest was already shaved and prepped. But, at the last second, the Doc’s skill paid off and he made it around the bend to the amazement of my colleagues.

When I had left the office in an ambulance, longtime friend and CCEMS Board Member David Billings got a call. He was told it was very serious and that I might not make it. He called my wife and she headed to the hospital. A short time later, my wife and a couple of friends were in the waiting room when I was wheeled past, waving as I went by following my procedure.

I was alive, but I knew I’d have to make some serious changes. As a long time smoker, I’d quit many times and I always went back. I grew up in Kentucky which is a big tobacco state. At the time I started, you could get a pack out of a vending machine for 15 cents and those were the expensive ones. It was 12 cents at the cashier, but I was underage at the time (14) and preferred machines that asked no questions. I’d always liked the aroma of tobacco as well as cigarette, cigar and pipe smoke, which is probably one reason I’d never been able to quit before. I truly loved smoking.

It was also difficult to quit because I picked a very stressful career in the news business.

This time, though, I’d finally received a loud enough wake-up call to get my attention.  I had to quit for good, so I did.

I’d also have to eat healthier and actually get some exercise. After running track in high school, I was not a big fan of exercise, especially running. Now, that would have to change…. although, I chose lower-impact fast walking. I’m hoping that choice and the fact that I’ve lost weight can help me avoid knee or hip replacement surgery in the future…since I’m apparently going to live longer now.

I had my heart attack on Wednesday, got out of the hospital Friday morning and was back at work on Monday. I guess my doctor approved going back to work so soon because he figured there was no safer place for me to be than Cypress Creek EMS.

Looking back over the last year, I have a lot for which to be thankful. (Yes, I did manage to avoid putting the preposition at the end of that last sentence. However, it just sounds and reads funny….so let me change that to)….I have a lot to be thankful for.

I am extremely thankful that I was in my office at Cypress Creek EMS when I had my heart attack. I’m thankful that my colleagues instinctively knew something more serious than an inner ear problem was going on. I’m thankful that I didn’t go home from jury duty and I’m thankful that I was not chosen for a jury.  If my heart attack had happened in the 20-story Harris County Criminal Justice Center downtown with those extremely slow elevators, I probably would not be writing this now. I am also thankful to the wonderful staff at Houston Northwest Medical Center and Houston Northwest’s Cardiac Rehab Lab.

So, here’s what I learned from all of this. If you need to make healthy changes in your life do not wait for a near-death experience. Quit smoking, now. Start eating healthier, now. Get more exercise, now. Whatever it is that you know you have to do to live longer, do it now.

Let me end with a little comedy. After being released from the hospital, I was telling someone about my experience. “ARE YOU SERIOUS,” he asked.  “As a heart attack,” I replied.

With humor….and heart attacks, timing is everything.