Heart attack survivor James Morris of Stratford rebuilds his strength—and confidence—at Bridgeport Hospital’s cardiac rehabilitation center in Fairfield.
Back in July, James Morris of Stratford set out on his daily walk/run around the neighborhood. A wellknown high school football coach, exercise was part of James’ regular routine—for himself and for his players. But that summer morning, James noticed a strange and uncomfortable sensation in his chest. It came and went quickly, so he ignored it.
James felt fine for the next several weeks. But during a walk on Labor Day weekend, he sensed the same strange feeling in his chest again. Concerned, he decided to cut his routineshort and head home.
At bedtime that evening, James couldn’t get comfortable. “I couldn’t sit and I couldn’t lie down, let alone sleep,” he remembers. “I couldn’t do anything.”
Then, around 1:00 a.m., James suddenly lost control of all of his bodily functions. He broke out in a sweat. He was lightheaded. He felt pain in the center of his chest. His wife, Brenda, sat up in bed, alarmed. “She took one look at me and said, ‘I think you’re having a heart attack. I’m calling 9-1-1.’ I resisted, insisting I wasn’t, and that I could always drive myself to the hospital. I’m glad she ignored me,” says James, with a grateful smile.
The ambulance arrived in a few short minutes. With James on board, the Emergency Medical Services (EMS) team immediately notified the Emergency Department (ED) team at Bridgeport Hospital about James’ condition so they were ready for his arrival. By 1:30 a.m., the cardiac clinical team at Bridgeport Hospital was in place and attending to James. They administered nitroglycerine to open his arteries and improve blood flow to the heart. They gave him morphine for the chest pain. And an EKG (electrocardiogram) test measured the electrical activity in James’ heart to find the cause of the chest pain.
The team also alerted Cardiologist Robert Fishman, MD, who arrived at James’ side. “All indicators—the pain, the testing—showed that James had a blood clot lodged in his left anterior descending coronary artery, which some people call a ‘widow maker’,” says Dr. Fishman. “During a heart attack, time is muscle. One of the best ways to prevent permanent damage to the heart is to re-establish blood flow to it as quickly as possible. The clot needed to be removed right away.”
Cardiac nurses and technicians from Bridgeport Hospital’s Joel E. SmilowHeart Institute whisked James up to the cardiac catheterization lab to open his artery. Dr. Fishman administered a local anesthesia, inserted a thin long tube (a catheter) through a blood vessel in James’ leg and threaded it to the heart. He then injected special dye through the catheter to pinpoint the exact location of the blood clot. He worked quickly to perform an angioplasty and aspiration thrombectomy to “vacuum out” the blood clot, and insert a stent to keep the artery open. Dr. Fishman then checked the pumping function of James’ heart, which was back to normal. The damage from the heart attack had been significantly reduced by both procedures.
“We got in quickly and literally stopped his heart attack,” says Dr. Fishman. “We saved his heart muscle by opening the artery.”
With the widow-maker cleared, Brenda was finally able to breathe a sigh of relief.
James recovered in Bridgeport Hospital’s Coronary Care Unit (CCU), dedicated to heart patients. “The nurses couldn’t have been nicer to me and my family. They never stopped asking if I needed anything,” James remembers. “They work so hard, and we sincerely appreciated their attention to detail.”
James was strong enough to return home a couple of days later.
“It used to be that a patient who had a heart attack was in the hospital for two weeks,” remembers Dr. Fishman. “It wasn’t until the third day that patients were allowed to simply swing their legs from the side of the bed. Today, most patients are strong enough to start rehabilitation in just a few days.”
Dr. Fishman recommended that James enroll in the Healthy Hearts 2 program at Bridgeport Hospital’s Cardiac Rehabilitation and Wellness Programs site in Fairfield. This threemonth program is individually designed to meet every cardiac patient’s medical needs. Sessions include monitored exercise, nutrition counseling, stress management skills and education about medication and heart health, and is highly recommended by the American Heart Association. (See box below.)
“Cardiac rehabilitation strengthens the heart, increases vitality and helps to reduce the risk of having another heart attack,” says Coordinator of Cardiac Rehabilitation and Wellness Programs Suzanne Standish, MS, RD, RN. “We’ve seen our patients regain confidence in their abilities and make lifestyle changes. Many reach a level of health that is better than where they were before they had a heart attack.”
“I was nervous at first to start exercising again,” admits James. “I was worried about unintentionally overdoing it and putting too much stress on my heart. Dr. Fishman assured me that the therapists would design a strategy for me and encourage me to push myself a little every day, and that eventually I would overcome the fear I had.”
He was cautious in the beginning. “I didn’t want to blow another gasket!” he says.
James now looks forward to his sessions. “This is a good team,” He says. “They fuss over everybody, monitor how we are doing the exercises and help us adjust so we don’t get hurt. Joe, the exercise physiologist, is always watching out for me—watching the monitors, asking me if I need a break. Sometimes he knows better than I do about how I’m feeling! I’ve also learned how to take better care of myself. We discuss medication and nutrition, and we have individual conditioning sessions. I lost 10 pounds in the first month without even trying to lose weight. It has made such a difference. I feel great!”
“I never let our patients overstep what their cardiac condition allows,” says Joe Petreycik, RN, and American College of Sports Medicine Clinical Exercise Specialist. “I help each patient develop the confidence to improve his or her cardiac condition through a dedicated and consistent aerobic and strength training program. Exercise directly improves the cardiovascular system, weight control and response to stress.”
James looks forward to returning to his regular routine soon, especially coaching football at Harding High School in Bridgeport and running his football summer camp in Shelton. “Coaching football has been my passion for 25 years. I enjoy working with the students,” he says. “There’s so much more to coaching than just training for the next game. It’s about teaching life skills and helping them learn values, like respecting their parents and being responsible for their actions. I can’t wait to get back on the field.”
James checks in regularly with Cardiologist Richard Taikowski, MD, on his progress and recovery. So far, so good: the stent is holding steady–and he no longer needs certain medications. Dr. Taikowski is also watching James’ stress levels. “James is generally an easy-going guy,” says Dr. Taikowski. “Before the heart attack, he was doing all the right things: he doesn’t smoke, he exercised and he monitored his blood pressure. It is suspected that stress is one of the possibilities that triggered his heart attack.” Stress hormones have been shown to coagulate blood—creating blood clots—and can also rupture any plaque that has built up in the arteries. (For more about stress and heart disease, see “Ask the Experts” in this issue.)
“You know, in a way, this whole experience has been a godsend,” James says. “At first, I was still in denial that I had even had a heart attack. I never thought it would happen to me. I eat red meat once a year and I don’t smoke. Since the heart attack, I have taken a look at how I’m living life daily. I pay attention to my portions, and I no longer sneak desserts! Most importantly, since the heart attack, I better appreciate all that I have in my life: My wife, my two sons, my coaching. And time. I’m a lucky guy.”
When choosing a cardiologist or cardiothoracic surgeon, be sure to select an expert physician affiliated with Bridgeport Hospital’s Joel E. Smilow Heart Institute:
Cardiologists S.M. Yousuf Ali, MD Doron Amir, MD Gregory Bloom, MD Linda Casale, MD Murali Chiravuri, MD Mitchell Driesman, MD Robert Fishman, MD Ram Gordon, MD Avinash Gulrajani, MD Sik Hur, MD Leonid Karpenos, MD Steven Kunkes, MD Gilead Lancaster, MD
Charles Landau, MD Michael Logue, MD Adam Lottick, MD Adolfo Luciano, MD Stephen Marshalko, MD Craig McPherson, MD Jay Meizlish, MD Victor Mejia, MD Robert Moskowitz, MD Edward Pinto, MD Mohummad Raza, MD Robert Sackstein, MD Adam Schussheim, MD Richard Taikowski, MD