Grateful: From the Bottom of His Mended Heart

Tim Woodson of Fairfield was Christmas shopping at the mall on Dec. 22, 2012, when he began to feel nauseous and his upper body started to cramp. He put away his wallet and went home, thinking he just needed to stretch out because of his rigorous session at the gym that morning. His pulse was weak, his hands were cold and he knew something wasn’t right. His wife, Cathy, called 9-1-1.

Minutes later, Fairfield Fire Department paramedics arrived and Tim’s life changed forever. The 49-year-old Kaiser Permanente member was experiencing a massive heart attack, the same kind that killed his father when he was 49.

Tim, a health and safety coordinator for a Martinez engineering and remediation company, was given an EKG en route to the hospital to determine the severity of the heart attack. It was a STEMI—a fancy medical term for ST Elevation Myocardial Infarction—the most serious of heart attacks. He was rushed to NorthBay Medical Center, Solano County’s only Chest Pain and STEMI receiving center.

He went through the Emergency Department and straight into the cardiac catheterization lab where two stents were inserted. He was placed on an intra-aortic balloon pump, which earned him the nickname, “Balloon Man,” for the duration of his stay.

“That was the scariest thing—having to listen to the balloon’s whooshing sound all the time,” he recalls with a chuckle.

“I remember almost every detail of my experience, including being wide awake when I received the first of four shocks to my heart,” Tim says. “It was like a bolt of lightning hit me in the face. I remember yelling out, and that’s about it.”

Four days later, he underwent quadruple bypass surgery performed by cardiothoracic surgeon Sarah Minasyan, M.D. At the same time, the staff was warning his family that he was in pretty bad shape.

But they didn’t know Tim Woodson. He wasn’t about to give up.

Roller-Coaster Recovery

The active and spirited father of two boys was ready to mount a challenge to overcome not only the physical effects of the heart attack, but the emotional and spiritual scars as well. “The worst part of my recovery was the emotional roller coaster,” he recalls. “I wasn’t prepared for the extreme ups and downs during my recovery. I spent many days in bed crying and wondering why and how this all happened to me. I thought because I was fairly active that I was healthy.”

Tim was used to rigorous hikes and bike rides with his sons, Alec, 15, and Bryce, 13, with the local Boy Scout chapter. He loved camping and kayaking and even tried a zip line. He taught CPR, but when his heart attack hit, he didn’t recognize it. “I didn’t realize that I was vulnerable because of heredity,” he says simply. “However, I know now that if I hadn’t been as active as I was, I probably wouldn’t have survived.”

Seeking a Support Group

Tim spent about a week in NorthBay Medical Center’s critical care unit and later was sent home. It was then he realized that there is no Solano County support group for cardiac patients. “I needed to talk to someone who had been through something similar,” he says. So he joined a few Facebook groups, including the Under 55 Heart Attack Survivors, Heart Attack Survivors Unite (HASU), and the I Survived Bypass Surgery group.

“These groups were a tremendous help,” he says. “We shared stories, recipes, recovery tips and emotional support.”

But Tim wanted more. He discovered that Mended Hearts, a national support group, once had a chapter in Solano County, but that it had folded. So he drove into Walnut Creek to attend monthly meetings.

Now he’s determined to create a chapter in Solano County—stepping up to accept the duties of president—so other patients like him will have the support they need, close to home. NorthBay has already offered to host the group and provide expert medical speakers for some of the sessions.

Tim is also being trained as a “support visitor” for others who have experienced cardiac events. His first day home, it was a challenge to walk to the nearest street corner and back. But now he walks and exercises about four miles every day. He’s also changed his diet. Now he’s a vegetarian, dropping 45 pounds in the process. His diabetes is under control and his cholesterol has dropped.

Inspiration and Action

He’s been inspired watching his son’s track and cross country team at Armijo High. “I see their personal determination, and it’s encouraged me to walk or jog every day at the gym or in the park.” He recently participated in his first 5K and plans to sign up for future events.

Today, Tim says he feels healthier than he did before his heart attack.

In June, he came back to NorthBay Healthcare to say thank you to staff who helped him through those difficult first days. He brought his heart-shaped pillow—given to cardiac surgery patients for help in their recovery—and had staff sign it. “We love hearing from our patients,” says Judy Winters, director of critical care. “It’s a huge part of our mission—compassionate care, close to home.”

Tim’s family accompanied him on the visit, and hugs were shared all around. “From the people who cleaned my room, to the nurses, surgeons and administrative staff, I am grateful for all their help,” he says.

To learn more about the progress of the local Mended Hearts chapter, meeting times and locations, call Tim at (925)408-3642 or email mendedhearts357@gmail.com.

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