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A Rapid Response to Save

It took only 37 minutes to save Erv Inniger’s life.

The 67-year-old man went from his first chest pain to surgery to open a fully blocked coronary artery in just over a half hour. The speed of Sanford’s Health’s network of care got his heart back to pumping right away.

Erv, a former North Dakota State University Basketball coach who retired last year from a position as senior associate athletic director, says he just can’t thank the people involved for the professional response that not only saved his life, but also protected his heart from sustaining long-term damage.

“I’m here today and I have no damage to my heart because of the choices they made,” says Erv. “I owe my life to them.”

A faster response

Sanford Heart in Fargo has been nationally recognized by the American Heart Association for a commitment and success in implementing a higher standard of care for all heart attack patients, a program called Mission: Lifeline. Cardiologist Dr. Craig Kouba says Sanford’s streamlined procedures get heart attack patients quicker, more targeted care.

Patients like Erv are tested by EMTs in the field to determine if they are having a type of heart attack referred to as a STEMI (ST Elevation Myocardial Infarction). Instead of wasting valuable time in the emergency room for diagnosis, they go instead directly to Sanford’s Cardiac Catheterization Laboratory for immediate treatment to open blocked arteries.

“Time is heart muscle,” says Dr. Kouba. “Getting that artery opened allows us to abort the heart attack and help maintain heart function without damage.”

The national-standard average for getting a heart attack patient into catheterization to clear heart blockage is 90 minutes, almost three times the time it took to treat Erv. Everything in Erv’s case worked optimally, starting with Erv’s own realization that something was not right. His willingness to reach out for help saved his life and heart, the doctor says.

“We all did our part quickly, but everyone along the way was teed up by the people before them in the field,” says Dr. Kouba. “Everyone who briefly touched Erv in that 37 minutes knew that doing their job, reacting quickly and appropriately, would help others to get him the care he needed.”

As a former athlete who exercises every day, the Fargo man had never shown any signs before of heart issues before August 24. That morning, he got into the shower after delivering the newspaper to his neighbors in the condominium, walking up and down three flights of stairs with no problem.

“I felt normal going in, but when I stepped out of the shower, my life changed just like that,” he says.

Erv was tired and thought about staying home, but decided to go into his office at NDSU. As he arrived downtown, he felt a sudden tightness in his chest. Walking out of his car, and straight into the branches of a tree, he knew something was seriously wrong.

The first step of care

Stopping into the trainer’s office at the university, he told staff there that he wasn’t feeling good. Sanford Health has a partnership with NDSU trainers and the athletic teams. Training staff called 911 almost immediately, seeing the usually jovial former coach walking unsteadily, his complexion ashen.

Paramedics arriving at the scene gave him an electrocardiogram to check his heart functions and 37 minutes later he was in surgery at Sanford Heart Hospital, having his right coronary artery opened. He remembers small moments from the ambulance ride and the diagnostic tests in the catheterization laboratory that showed that he the artery was fully, almost 100 percent blocked.

“I was never scared because nobody was panicking around me,” says Erv, with a hearty laugh. “The nurses were so unbelievable, so calm, that I never thought I had reason to worry.”

Before Erv’s wife could even be reached, he underwent an angioplasty and a procedure to put a stent in his blocked artery. His cardiac rehabilitation went smoothly, since he was in great shape going into his heart surgery and was treated before the organ could sustain damage.

A healthy heart

He realized when he met other people in post-surgery rehab how lucky he was that he was treated so quickly. Many other patients ignored the symptoms and he watched them struggle to rebuild their lives with damaged hearts.

“I was so fortunate to have people around me getting me where I needed to go,” says Erv. “I’m not always great at listening to directions, but this is one time when I’m very glad I did.”

Today, Erv is back to his normal daily exercise routine. He’s even training for the 2013 National Senior Games, having qualified to represent the state in racquetball.

Everything happened at just the right time on the morning his heart stopped working to make his treatment possible, he says. He was able to safely park his car just as he felt the “pressure of an elephant” on his chest. A graduate student just happened to be in the training office earlier than usual on the morning he stumbled in.

“It was one miracle after another that morning,” Erv says, seriously. “Some people tell me I was lucky. I like to say that I’m blessed.”

Since Erv started telling his story about the fateful day, he’s heard from several people who have gone into their doctor to have problematic symptoms checked out. He encourages anyone who has chest pains or numbness in their arms or legs to go the doctor right away.

“You go in. They always can say that there’s nothing wrong with you,” he says.

Erv is still on a mission to track down all of the people who were involved in getting him the help that saved his life and pass on his appreciation. He’s already personally thanked his cardiologist, Dr. Kouba, and several other members of the team who saved his life. He hopes to reach out to everyone else involved in his care.

“I’m not done thanking everybody yet,” he says. “They ought to be proud of their work. I’m here today because of them.”

Posted Date: November 2012