AKRON, Ohio — Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, emergency calls for heart attacks have fallen. But that's not necessarily good news.
Doctors caution heart disease isn't taking a vacation. Rather, fear of medical treatments at a time when hospitals are treating COVID-19 patients is stopping people from getting the help they need.
Gary Roadruck survived the deadliest type of heart attack just two months ago, when coronavirus cases were rising. His message to all of us? "Don't wait. Get help."
When orders to shelter at home began, Gary did what so many of us have done, too.
"I had put on 15 pounds because of COVID," he said. "My wife and I sat home, cooking all the time, watched television. I was letting myself go."
On April 18, Gary did a few hours of yard work, took a short nap, then got on his exercise bike. He had a great workout, but afterward didn't "feel right." Monitoring his vital signs, Gary knew something was wrong.
He thought of his son, a paramedic in Washington, D.C. What would his son tell him to do?
Gary took a single aspirin and asked his wife Nancy to call 911.
As luck would have it, a squad had just responded to a false alarm and was only a few blocks away. Within five minutes, EMTs were walking in the door.
"By then, it hit hard," Gary recalled. "They came and I was laying on the couch, and they cleared a space and started an EKG. They immediately determined, 'Mr. Roadruck, you are having a heart attack.'"
It wasn't just any heart attack, but a type known as "the widowmaker," caused by a 100% blockage of the left anterior descending artery. With this type of blockage, the heart can stop with little to no warning, and if a patient goes into cardiac arrest outside of the hospital, the survival rate is roughly 6%.
By the time the ambulance arrived at Cleveland Clinic Akron General Hospital, Gary was in so much pain, he was ready to die. In the cath lab, he was met by a team of doctors including cardiologist Dr. Ankur Kalra.
His pain a "10 out of 10," Gary wanted Dr. Kalra to give his family a message.
"I said to him, 'Doc, I lived a great life. I have no regrets. I'm ready to go. Just tell my family I love them.'"
But Kalra had his own message for Gary: Leaning right into his patient's face, he said, "Gary, just give me a couple of minutes. Just give me a couple more minutes."
The team had diagnosed Gary with a widowmaker, and Kalra moved quickly to keep Gary alive and prevent significant heart damage. True to his word, and in just "a couple of minutes," Kalra reestablished blood flow to Gary's artery via a balloon angioplasty.
"He got the stent in and within 50 minutes, I felt fine," Gary said. "The Cleveland Clinic did a wonderful job, and thank God Dr. Kalra was there and took command. I was in good hands."
The message both doctor and patient want to share? Had Gary waited for fear of COVID, his outcome likely would not have been the same.
"Gary sought care and care was delivered in a timely fashion," Kalra stressed. "Now his life and expectancy and quality of life is going to be that of a normal person."
Since that day, Gary has been focusing on his health: eating right, exercising, and moving more. He's down 20 pounds.
Try to do these things BEFORE you have a heart attack, and if something doesn't feel right, don't hesitate. Call 911.
"You know, seconds or minutes, minutes or hours in that situation," Gary said. "And the sooner you get attention, the better. If it turns out to be a false alarm, all the better."
Seek emergency medical attention immediately if you have any heart attack symptoms. Some of the warning signs and symptoms of a 100% LAD blockage include:
- feeling chest pain or discomfort
- pain radiating out into your arms, legs, back, neck, or jaw
- pain in the abdominal area that feels like heartburn
- muscle pain in your chest or neck that feels like a pulled muscle
- difficulty breathing
- feeling anxious or panicky for no apparent reason
- feeling dizzy, lightheaded, or disoriented
- getting sweaty without warning
- nausea, vomiting
- feeling like your heart is skipping beats
It's important to note that women are more likely than men to experience many of these symptoms, without having chest pain. As for improving your overall health, Dr. Kalra has this advice:
- Exercise at least 30 minutes, 5 days a week. Preferably moderate intensity to high intensity. Interval training is good. *Of course always check with your physician before beginning any exercise routine.
- Meals should have 7 different colors each day, meaning you have a good variety of fruits and vegetables.
- Dairy in moderation
- One fatty fish meal a week
- No red meat
- Poultry in moderation
- Choose whole grains
Dr. Kalra is also the founder of the non-profit startup, makeadent.org. The organization is a global health initiative that innovates applications and programs in healthcare.
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