Maybe that’s why I watched all those “Emergencies!” episodes growing up.
The former TV show depicts fictional Los Angeles County Fire Department paramedics John Gage (Randolph Mantooth) and Roy DeSoto (Kevin Tighe) giving life-saving initial medical treatment to victims of fires, accidents, heart attacks and medical emergencies.
Paramedics were in short supply when “Emergency!” debuted on January 15, 1972. They were spreading nationwide when the show ended in 1979. North Platte followed suit on March 9, 1994.
It all paid off for me on May 15.
This is the story of a heart attack. Mine. And what I saw and heard through it all.
I’m here to write it thanks to the skilled and dedicated first responders at North Platte — today’s Gages and DeSotos — and the doctors and nurses at Great Plains Health who kept me going this Sunday.
Maybe my story will help others seek help even faster. Above all, my family and I want to show our local lifeguards in action so that North Platte and West Central Nebraska know how extremely valuable they are.
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I wanted to get our lawn mowed before Joan and I composed the music for the 11 a.m. Sunday mass at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church.
Besides our front yard, we have a back yard separated by a boardwalk. I’ve long made sure, now that I’m 58, to rest a few minutes between segments.
But after I finished the first half of the backyard – it was around 9:30 am – I started noticing there was more going on.
I was more tired than usual. My hands hurt. Somehow I finished mowing, but then I noticed a dull ache in my chest.
I had to take a shower for mass. I felt a little better. But when my wife, Joan, said it was time to go, I had to lie down for a while.
“OK, let’s go,” I finally said. “Can you drive?”
I had barely sat down when my stomach joined in the action. I got out of the car.
One, two, three dry vomits.
Joan wished she had taken me to the hospital right away. In fact, she went to Mass on high alert – call right away if you need help, she said – and I lay down again. Living in the age of smartphones like we are, I found the American Heart Association’s list of heart attack symptoms (heart.org/en/health-topics/heart-attack/warning-signs-of- a-heart-attack).
Most “start slow,” he said. He mentioned discomfort in the chest and/or upper body, shortness of breath and “other signs” including dizziness, nausea and “cold sweats”.
I had clearly had the last two. And dull chest pain.
Notice that I didn’t write about the feeling of crushing chest pain. Thanks to Hollywood, it’s probably the most stereotypical heart attack symptom — even on “Emergency!”
But two heart attacks do not necessarily produce the same symptoms. I knew it.
It was around 11 a.m., about 90 minutes since the first symptoms appeared. I called Joan: “Come get me.”
“Call 911. I’m on my way,” she said.
I had already decided to do just that.
Joan noticed later how lucid and calm I was through it all. I give some credit to “Emergency!” (which I actually bought on DVD in April and had seen again).
I knew the dispatcher would call the paramedics. They would take these first medical steps to give me the best chance, and then take me to the hospital.
I knew they would probably come quickly. We are three minutes from the North Platte North Fire Station. All three stations are 10 minutes or less away.
Our 911 dispatcher got my information, said the ambulance was on the way, and asked if I had any aspirin in the house.
I take a baby aspirin every morning, I said.
“Chew some and swallow four right away,” she replied.
My son Ben gave me the bottle. I was finishing them when Joan and the paramedics arrived.
Ed Etherton, Justin Thompson and Matt LaRue were my Gage and DeSoto. I can’t say enough about their calm and reassuring demeanor as they asked questions, took my vital signs, and hooked up an IV to my right arm and another to my left hand.
I had been taken down to our first floor before they arrived. It made my stretcher trip through the door, down the front steps and into the ambulance to GPH easier.
The emergency team acted quickly. Registered nurses Kellie Gandee and Susan Caudillo and emergency room technician Ann Marie Baker (a nursing student from North Platte Community College) examined me, adjusted medications, put me in a gown and m prepared for treatment.
The GPH Cardiac Center duty team first probed my heart with a catheter. But someone else had had a heart attack earlier that morning, they said. I would be next.
A familiar face entered: Apryl Lee, a former graphic designer colleague from the Telegraph who now works in the GPH radiology department. His presence and embrace couldn’t have been better timed, Joan said.
Around noon, I was transported to the cardiac catheterization laboratory.
The heart team calmed me down, but not enough to knock me out. So I knew what was going on when Dr. Muhammad Raufi, the GPH cardiologist on duty that day, outlined the next steps.
They pierced my right wrist. This is where their catheter entered, going through the blood vessels in my arm and in my heart. The imaging equipment helped them see every inch of the catheter’s journey.
They wouldn’t open my chest. If warranted, Dr. Raufi said, they would insert a stent to reopen clogged arteries and keep them open.
It should have entered through my groin, which they prepped for what would have been a longer and more invasive journey.
Dr. Raufi and his cath lab assistants – Sam, Ty, Lanetta and Carter – needed two hours to complete their work.
I couldn’t see much except equipment and the occasional masked professional. They spoke in low voices, occasionally reciting pairs of numbers that I assumed were the coordinates of the catheter’s advancement.
I heard them say they were preparing a stent. So, it was definitely about to become part of my life.
I was comfortable except for a brief period. I heard them say that my blood pressure had dropped. As they made adjustments, I felt a deep, sudden chill.
I knew it was probably due to the drop in blood pressure. But I now had a hint of the proverbial “icy chill of death”.
My blood pressure went up. The cold has passed.
They had put some kind of thick bandage on my right groin. I waited for the piercing, sting or pain indicating catheter entry.
Towards the end, one of the assistants said they were done. “If you came in through my groin,” I said, “you did an amazing job.”
“Oh, we didn’t have to do that,” replied the assistant. “We did everything through your wrist.”
I had barely noticed. This isn’t your 20th century heart surgery, let alone one on “Emergency!”
But don’t get me wrong: I had a major heart attack. One I’m lucky to have survived.
Dr. Raufi told Joan afterwards that I had had a complete blockage of the left anterior descending artery of my heart. It has a more common nickname: the “widowmaker” artery.
This artery can get clogged quickly, we heard. Or it could have been progressive. We do not know.
I also had a blood clot that was blocking a secondary vessel in this artery. The cardiac team removed as much of that clot as possible. One of my many new drugs tackles the rest.
My calm that day probably included a sense of inevitability. Notice that I had made some changes to my diet, even though life and work constantly seemed to conspire against sufficient physical activity.
My father’s German parents lived to be almost 88 and 92 without significant heart problems. Dad, now 80, had high blood pressure but few other heart problems.
But I am also half Danish. My maternal grandmother lived to be 95, but my grandfather died at age 60 in 1957 from what they then called “hardening of the arteries”.
And my mom had a heart valve replacement at age 55 in 1998. (She’s 79 now and still doing well.)
Since then, I wondered if I would survive my 50s and which side of my heritage would prevail over heart issues.
Well, the Danish side won.
So I was neither shocked nor panicked this Sunday morning. I had known for a long time that something could happen. Now it is.
So now we’re moving forward and doing better with diet, exercise and the like.
I ended up in the “progressive care unit” of GPH. The first night was sleepless – so much had happened – but I was gradually able to rest more and more.
Forty-eight hours later, I returned home.
Joan and I are grateful to the team at UPC who watched over me: registered nurses Grace Dulay, Bea Onate, Samantha Whiley and Jessie Buffington; technicians Rori Jensen-Manley and Hannah Cook; and Tra and Brooklyn, cardiology providers working with Dr. Azariah Kirubakaran, my Monday and Tuesday cardiologist.
I will be undergoing cardiac rehab for a while. Dr. Georgy Kaspar and Physician Assistant Ryan Sowle will oversee my recovery at the GPH Heart Institute, along with Dr. Shawn Murdock, our primary care provider at Midlands Family Medicine.
We had purchased non-refundable plane tickets in February to see family and friends in the Portland, Oregon area from May 25-June 1.
My mood brightened when Dr. Kirubakaran – with the timely help of GPH Chaplain Brenda Lee – said we could still go.
I was able on our vacation and since then to walk up to two miles without chest pain or shortness of breath. Complete cardiac output is important.
And I’m grateful to our soon-to-be-leaving St. Pat pastor, Reverend Josh Brown, for giving me the Catholic Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick before we went on vacation. Faith matters.
I’m sure I’ll be dealing with my brush with mortality for quite a while. I guess you could say I heard the first faint trumpet sounds from the other side on May 15th.
But it looks like God isn’t done with me yet.