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Connections for Heart Care



Irene Simmons went from having a mysterious pain in her chest to being slated for heart surgery in less than three hours.

With no history of heart issues, the 64-year-old woman had no reason to think that she was having cardiac problems. But the normal things she did to relieve herself from pain just didn’t help.

“I tried to lie down and meditate, but that didn’t work so well,” says Irene, taking a break after some work in her flower gardens outside. “I had no idea what was happening, but I knew it wasn’t good.”

Fortunately, on this December morning she was only blocks away from the help she would need to not only save her life, but prevent irreparable damage to her heart. Doctors at Sanford Wheaton Emergency Services quickly assessed her condition and coordinated her transportation and the care she’d need at Sanford Heart Hospital in Fargo.

“With a heart attack, they’re just so on the ball,” Irene said. “It’s far beyond anything I had experienced before.”

Mysterious pain

Having dealt with had rheumatoid arthritis for over 25 years, Irene is used to dealing with pain. She told her husband and son to leave for a planned trip to Fargo that morning. At first she thought she had indigestion, but then felt intense pain on the right side of her body.

She tried meditation, even chewed one of her husband’s baby aspirins, but nothing helped. Soon she called her brother to take her to the emergency room, just three blocks from her house. Almost immediately after she walked through the doors, doctors at Sanford Wheaton Emergency Services diagnosed her problem.

“I couldn’t believe it when they told me that I was having a heart attack,” she says.

Just minutes after an electrocardiogram reading showed her heart was failing, the medical team was on the phone to Sanford Heart Hospital. Twenty-four hours a day those calls are dispatched directly to a nurse linked to the cardiologist on call, making the arrangements needed to get Irene quickly airlifted and scheduled for treatment, says Janna Pietrzak, coordinator for STEMI (ST Elevation Myocardial Infarction) services.

“We have a strict protocol to get the patients there in 20 to 30 minutes or less,” says Pietrzak, who works with regional hospitals to help them respond quickly with heart attack patients. “The sooner we can start treatment, the more heart muscle will survive.”

A fast response

Soon Irene was being administered anti-clotting agents while she waited for the arrival of the air ambulance. In the meantime, the nurses and doctors took good care of her, getting her ready to go.

“I’ve always wanted a helicopter ride and I got one, but I didn’t really get to see very much,” Irene says, laughing.

The arrangements had already been made to take Irene directly to the cardiac cathertization lab, where a stent would be placed in her artery to keep it from collapsing. As soon as cardiologist Jack Crary put the stent in place, her pain was gone and she started feeling better.

“Being able to get patients treatment without delay is essential to prevent that loss of function or lifestyle,” says Pietrzak. “Every minute counts.”

Close to home

Two months later Irene came back to Fargo to have a second stent put in another artery that was also blocked. She was able to do all of her cardiac rehabilitation and nearly all of her follow-up appointments back at home in Wheaton.

“It was nice to be able to do it all locally, with people you know,” Irene said.

Today she’s got more energy, for walking and planting flowers than she’s had in years, and she’s been cleared to get back to the traveling she loves, she says. She tells other women to pay attention to the signs of heart attack and don’t hesitate to have their symptoms checked out.

“You put a lot of trust in their hands because they know exactly what needs to be done,” she says. “It’s why I am here today.”

Posted Date: June 2012

Connections for Heart Care

Irene Simmons didn’t know she was having a heart attack, but her local emergency services team did. Find out how regional Sanford Health hospitals work to get speedy treatment for cardiac patients, saving lives and hearts.