Why Time Is Critical During a Heart Attack

July 21, 2020

Clinical Contributors to this Story

Arthur Okere, M.D. contributes to topics such as Interventional Cardiology.

Had Cathy Sutley known that her friend Michele Williams was experiencing gripping pain in her neck, arms and chest on a late-November evening in her kitchen, she would have called 911 sooner. “When I heard her tell the paramedics her pain was a level nine, I nearly fainted,” Cathy says.

Michele isn’t sure why she didn’t tell her friend about the pain. It started about an hour earlier while the 72-year-old was at the grocery store in West Long Branch, New Jersey. Along with the pain came an intense sense of panic and dread, which Michele brushed off, attributing it to the anxiety she had about misplacing her cell phone. “I was thinking to myself, something isn’t right,’” she says. “But I still didn’t say anything.”

‘Time Is Muscle’

“In the field we have a saying, ‘Time is myocardium,’ meaning that with each passing minute, your heart is dying and closer to death,” says Arthur Okere, M.D., interventional cardiologist at Jersey Shore University Medical Center.

Dr. Okere was Michele’s attending interventionist that night at Jersey Shore. By the time Michele arrived by ambulance, she had experienced a massive heart attack and was in cardiogenic shock, which happens when your heart suddenly can’t pump enough blood to meet your body’s needs. Through quick thinking and a new heart pump device called the Impella®, Dr. Okere and his team were able to save her life.

Had she arrived minutes later, the outcome would have been bleak. “I’m known around here as the guy who doesn’t give up, and in this case that was a good thing,” he says. “She was blue and cold—she did not look good.”

Early Signs

Technically, Michele had known something was off for several days. “I’d been waking up incredibly exhausted,” she says. “One morning I could barely get out of bed.” The exhaustion wore off by the afternoon, however, leading Michele to brush off her symptoms. “Never did it occur to me that it might be my heart.”

Many people in Michele’s position would have done the same. But reaching out to her health care provider at any point during those few days could have spared her heart further damage. “Typically, a heart attack starts with a plaque rupture,” Dr. Okere says. “That fatigue she was experiencing could have been the beginning stages of that rupture. She survived, but her heart took a hit.”

Had Michele even come in earlier that evening, when she first started feeling bad at the grocery store, her heart would be better off today. “We would have checked her blood pressure, ran a stress test, an electrocardiogram, perhaps a chest X-ray,” Dr. Okere says. “All of that would give us the information we needed to prepare her for early intervention.”

Cathy will never forget that night at the hospital. “Dr. Okere came out and said, ‘Michele has had a massive heart attack, and you saved her life,’” Cathy says. “And I just cried.”

Know the Signs of Stroke and Heart Attack

Stroke and heart attack are deadlier than COVID-19, especially when left untreated. Hackensack Meridian Health Emergency Departments are safe and have implemented protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Don’t delay: If you experience signs of a stroke or heart attack, dial 911 right away. Earlier medical treatment will increase the chances of a positive outcome.

Symptoms of a heart attack include:

  • Chest discomfort, such as pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain
  • Discomfort in other areas of the upper body, such as the arms, back, neck, jaw or stomach
  • Shortness of breath
  • Other sudden symptoms such as cold sweats, nausea or lightheadedness

Symptoms of a stroke include:

  • Balance issues
  • Vision problems
  • Facial drooping
  • Arm weakness
  • Speech difficulty

Next Steps & Resources:

The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.