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Putting the Puzzle Together



Perched at a tiny table in his daughter’s playroom, Rex Pruitt leans over the board game Operation.

He and seven-year-old Reagan can’t help but giggle as a loud buzz puts a jolting end to his tries remove the “dog bone” from the foot of the patient on the well-loved toy.

Just a month earlier, the 51-year-old Sioux Falls man found himself at Sanford Heart Hospital, but this time the “operation” saved his life. Less than a day after walking into his doctor’s office with what he thought was an ear infection, Rex had an almost fully blocked artery cleared in his heart.

“My doctors’ instincts and their knowledge saved my life,” says Rex. “We truly believe that it was a miracle, that God worked with these incredible doctors who have the intelligence and the gift to heal.”

Not feeling 100 percent

Looking back, Rex realizes that he had ignored some early signs of problems. Starting this spring, the fit, otherwise healthy man, would sometimes have trouble keeping up with his wife on their regular walks. He had even talked to his doctor and scheduled a stress test for his heart, but then cancelled the appointment because he was feeling better.

Then in September, the analytics expert was out of town for a conference when he thought he was coming down with a cold. Walking with a colleague, he felt a burning feeling in his chest and he was exhausted, all things that he thought were due to the stress of the schedule of the event.

Rex returned home and dragged himself through meetings until mid-afternoon, when he decided to go to his doctor’s. He felt edgy and irritable and the burn in his chest had gotten worse. He thought he might be fighting off an ear infection.

“It was like I had just run a 40-yard dash in the cool air,” he says. “I was still sure it was just that I was run down from the conference.”

But at Sanford 69th and Minnesota Family Medicine clinic, Dr. Wallace Fritz knew better. After Rex began to describe his symptoms, the family practice doctor insisted that his patient go to the hospital right away.

A heart attack?

In fact, Dr. Fritz intended to call 911, only relenting after Rex explained his wife Kathy could make it to the clinic to drive him to the hospital in less than five minutes. The couple laughed about his symptoms, not realizing that Rex was in serious danger.

At the Sanford Emergency Center, Rex’s doctors hooked him up to a heart monitor, but nothing looked out of place. A blood test showed that his troponin levels, an enzyme that is released into the blood during a heart attack, were slightly elevated.

Rex’s emergency room physician, Dr. Robert Harms decided to admit Rex to the hospital for monitoring. Plans were made to do a stress test the next day to determine his heart health.

But a quick visit from cardiologist Dr. Adam Stys early that morning changed those plans. The doctor quickly examined Rex and decided instead to schedule him for angioplasty later that day. That decision saved Rex’s life.

As his wife waited outside, Rex went into the Sanford Heart Catheterization Laboratory. During the imaging of his artery, Dr. Stys determined that Rex’s “widow maker” artery was 99 percent blocked with plaque. The cardiologist placed a stent in the artery, using a balloon to expand it and press the plaque blockage against the arterial wall.

A life saved

When the doctor came out to update Kathy on her husband’s progress, he explained that Rex would never have made it through the stress test. In fact, his artery was so blocked that he could have dropped over with a heart attack at any moment.

“He told me, ‘To be honest, I can’t explain why he is still here right now,’” says Kathy, placing her hand on her husband’s shoulder. “I realize that it’s science, but we also know that a doctor relies on those gut feelings. I can’t say how thankful we are that the doctor listened to those feelings.”

Rex returned home, happy to have a second chance at life. He also learned when talking to father that one of his grandfathers had died of a sudden heart attack at age 48.

He says his family history truly brought home to him the reality of how close his own daughter came to growing up without a father.

“I feel so blessed that I had doctors who could see beyond just the immediate situation and really put the pieces of the puzzle together,” says Rex. “They could see the whole picture in a way that I couldn’t.”

Just weeks after his hospital stay, Rex has learned that his experience may have already saved other lives. He knows of several men who went to their doctors to get their hearts checked after hearing his story. One of his co-workers even ended up going through the same procedure to clear an almost completely blocked artery.

“I tell people that they need to pay attention to what their body is telling them,” Rex says. “If my story can help one person, I’m happy to tell it. Listen to your body.”

Posted Date: December 2012

Putting the Puzzle Together

There was no reason for Rex Pruitt to think he was in danger of heart failure. Yet Sanford doctors saw the bigger picture, realizing the healthy 51-year-old man needed immediate care to clear his artery and save his life.