When Hal Olofsson awoke in the middle of the night with piercing chest pains, he thought the discomfort would go away quickly. But as soon as he started vomiting a few moments later, Olofsson wasted little time and asked his wife to drive him three miles to Little Company of Mary Hospital in Evergreen Park, Illinois.
As his wife, Sheila, drove from their home in Chicago's Beverly neighborhood, Olofsson asked her to run through red lights if possible; he knew he was having a heart attack. Olofsson prayed in the car that a passing train wouldn't delay them.
"I kept thinking I would be OK, but then I realized how sick I was," said Olofsson, now 75, recalling that night almost two years ago.
Olofsson arrived at the hospital a few minutes later - just in time, doctors said, for them to perform an emergency angioplasty and insert a coronary stent into his heart to remove any blockage in his arteries. According to Olofsson's physician, Dr. Daniel Rowan, had Olofsson arrived at the hospital minutes later, he would have suffered much more extensive damage from the heart attack.
Olofsson, a practicing physical therapist in Beverly and the father of eight, said he has treated several heart attack patients over the years, so he knew not to take any chest pain symptoms lightly.
According to Rowan, president of the medical staff at Little Company, Olofsson's intuition to get to the hospital as soon as possible was key to his successful recovery. The American Heart Association recommends calling 911 within five minutes of experiencing symptoms.
Rowan said the goal is to perform angioplasties - the most effective technique to treat heart attack patients - within 90 minutes or less of the heart attack. This increases the patient's survival rate and enables doctors to save more heart muscle from damage, Rowan said. Unfortunately, many patients ignore heart attack symptoms, resulting in damage to the heart or death.
According to the Heart Association, stroke is the leading cause of "serious, long-term disability" in the United States, and cardiovascular disease is the No. 1 cause of death for men and women in the U.S. In 2006, heart disease claimed the lives of 631,636 people, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Rowan said many of those deaths could have been prevented had the patient recognized warning signs in time. These include chest or arm discomfort, shortness of breath and a family history of heart disease. Though Olofsson has an active lifestyle and eats properly, his mother died of a heart attack, a sign that he may have an increased risk of heart disease.
"It's not human nature to truly believe that we're having a heart attack," Rowan said. "Some people think, ‘Oh, it must be something I ate.' It's a natural human defense mechanism (to think it's something else). Unfortunately, the longer someone waits, the greater their risk of having more heart damage or sudden death."
According to Rowan, more community hospitals are better equipped to treat heart attack victims with state-of-the-art procedures than they were a decade ago. At Little Company, Rowan oversees the cardiac catheterization laboratory and serves as director of interventional cardiology. The hospital has participated in Johns Hopkins' Atlantic Cardiovascular Patient Outcomes Research Team (C-PORT) registry since 2000. C-PORT registry enables hospitals to perform emergency angioplasties even if the hospital doesn't have a separate department for open-heart surgery, Rowan said.
"It's important because you want to be able to provide all types of emergency care at all hospitals, regardless of size," he said. "Not everyone lives near a university."
The fact that Olofsson had to travel only a few miles to get the care he needed is something he's grateful for every day. Olofsson is also a cancer survivor who was diagnosed with multiple myeloma five years ago, so he takes little for granted. Now cancer-free, Olofsson continues to work as a physical therapist. While the former marathon runner has put his racing days behind him, he walks on a treadmill for exercise and monitors his heart carefully.
"I'm a very fortunate person," he said. "God is looking after me. That's it, or I'm just a very lucky guy."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun