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Saving a Heart of Gold

Norman says his wife, Jackie, is his rock and has been key in helping him adopt a healthier lifestyle since his heart surgery.

Jackie and Norman Gray have been married so long, they practically finish each other’s sentences. But, when it comes to retelling the events of May 15, Norman lets Jackie do all the talking. He can barely recall what happened the night he became one of NorthBay Healthcare’s first surgical patients to be treated in the newly opened Heart & Vascular Center.

The couple had just gone to bed, but about midnight Jackie sensed something just wasn’t right. “Norman didn’t seem to be able to get comfortable. He couldn’t sit up, he couldn’t lie down. He wasn’t breathing well and then was gasping for air.” Jackie called 911 and an ambulance rushed him to NorthBay Medical Center.

Norman, 66, has diabetes. Six months earlier he had had an angioplasty at Queen of the Valley Hospital. During the surgery, stents were placed in two arteries surrounding his heart, to relieve blockages. That surgery had gone well and Norman had been feeling just fine. Until this night.

After Norman and Jackie arrived in the Emergency Department, the NorthBay Heart & Vascular Center team swung into action. Cardiologists, emergency room personnel and specially trained nurses used state-of-the-art diagnostic technology to determine if Norman was having a heart attack and, if so, to prepare him for the next level of care. The team had been practicing for months, before the center’s official opening in April.

“He was in the ER for 12 hours,” Jackie recalls. “They ran tests and gave him medicines to thin his blood. They did say it was a heart attack and congestive heart failure.”

Jackie was fully aware that NorthBay had recently opened its Heart & Vascular Center and its surgical suite. “I had been following the center’s development in the news. I knew they could do open heart surgeries here,” and that fact was a relief to this wife who had already experienced the stress and worry that comes when a loved one has to leave the area for vital care. “It was so much nicer to have him close to home.”

Jeffrey Breneisen, M.D., medical director of cardiology for the Heart & Vascular Center, met with the Grays and told them Norman would need an angiogram. The test determined the stents had become blocked, which led to the heart attack. He was now going to need open heart, triple bypass surgery.

The surgery was scheduled and “that’s when the wheels really started turning,” Jackie says. “This team of people starting talking to us, explaining what was going to happen. They gave us a booklet that I read from cover to cover, and even highlighted parts of it.”

Dr. Ramzi Deeik, cardiac surgeon, came to see the couple and told them he was hoping to do the procedure “off pump,” also known as “beating heart surgery.”

“He was so professional, so considerate and compassionate.” Because Jackie had read the patient guide, she knew that the off-pump procedure was the method of choice because it poses the fewest complications, and that Dr. Deeik was expertly trained in the procedure.

Acute Care Nurse Practitioner Jamie Chohon (right) checks in on the progress of Norman Gray, who works out three days a week in the cardiac rehabilitation department at NorthBay Medical Center.

Another key member of the Heart & Vascular team is Acute Care Nurse Practitioner Jamie Chohon, who follows each heart patient, from pre-op to discharge. “Jamie is one fabulous person,” Jackie says. “She was always there to answer any questions or offer advice.”

“Paula Azure in the ICU was my guardian angel,” Norman says. “Every time I opened my eyes, she was there.”

The surgery took about four hours to complete and was performed off pump. Veins for the bypasses were harvested from Norman’s leg, using a less-invasive and faster healing technique. “We knew what was going on because they explained everything to us,” she says.

After the surgery, Norman’s recovery team expanded to include physical and cardiac rehabilitation therapists who helped teach him how to safely get in and out of bed and to perform proper post-surgical exercises, and a nutritionist who helped him find the right combination of medicines and diet to stabilize his blood sugar and blood pressure.

Norman was discharged to home on May 25, and the team followed his progress with Telehealth. Using the Gray’s telephone lines and a computer, the home health nurses could check on Norman’s vital signs, such as his heart rate, rhythm and blood pressure. “It was such a relief to have someone monitoring him like that; it took the stress off me and I could go back to work.”

Now, several months later, Norman is feeling great and he and Jackie are taking daily walks. He is also going to cardiac rehab three times a week. “The doctor gave us the green light to make travel plans, and we went to a big family reunion in July. We had a great time,” Norman says.

Norman’s heart attack “was a traumatic but wonderful experience,” Jackie says, “because we were in good hands. If you have to have a heart attack, this would be the place to have it, because the whole heart team is so compassionate and competent.”

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