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Perth Amboy Couple Overcomes Concurrent Near-fatal Heart Events

August 17, 2021

Clinical Contributors to this story:

Audre and Charles Gaskin of Perth Amboy, New Jersey, were born six years and 130 miles apart. Audre was born in Sumter, South Carolina, and Charles in nearby Greenwood, South Carolina. They didn’t meet until decades later at a car dealership in Rockland County, New York. Charles, 62, was a salesman and Audre, 68, was his customer.

“She liked the way I treated her,” recalls Charles, whose fair dealings with Audre won her business, then her heart.

The couple has six kids and 12 grandkids between them. They finish each other’s sentences and do almost everything together. “We’ve been together for 26 years, and we’re still best friends,” Audre says.

Although they share everything, one thing the Gaskins never planned on sharing was heart disease. But on a fateful day in January 2021, their synchronous hearts hiccupped at the same time.

One-Two Punch

It started with Charles, who takes walks every day. In November 2020, he began feeling short of breath during his daily strolls. The previous April, both he and Audre had been infected with COVID-19, and he wondered if he was experiencing residual respiratory symptoms. His daughter, who is a cardiac technologist in Atlanta, suspected the problem was actually with his heart.

At her urging, he made an appointment to see cardiologist Sunil Khanna, M.D., for a cardiac stress test, which he received January 26, 2021. At that time, an MRI revealed several blocked arteries, so Dr. Khanna sent Charles to JFK University Medical Center for a cardiac catheterization. The doctor expected to install a few stents at most, but quickly realized a more serious intervention was needed.

“When I came out of anesthesia, Dr. Khanna had a look on his face that said, ‘You have a problem,’” Charles says.

The problem: Each of his four major arteries was severely blocked—the prelude to a fatal heart attack that doctors call a “widowmaker.” Because he needed emergency heart surgery to remove the blockages, Charles was immediately transferred by ambulance to Hackensack University Medical Center.

Because she wasn’t feeling well, Audre had stayed home that day. While picking up Charles’ car from JFK, she felt her own heart begin to flutter. Unfortunately, it was a familiar feeling. After being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007, Audre underwent chemotherapy that crippled her heart’s left ventricle. The damage left here heart so weak that she subsequently experienced three cardiac events over the course of the next eight years.

“It wasn’t a heart attack, but it felt like one,” recalls Audre, who has a defibrillator in her chest. When she got out of the car, the defibrillator reacted so strongly to her heart palpitations that it nearly knocked her down. “When my defibrillator fired off, it felt like a lightning bolt hit me and knocked me backwards.”

Around that time, serendipitously, Audre’s phone rang. It was Hackensack calling to schedule an appointment with her cardiologist—Bernard Kim, M.D., who she’s been seeing since 2018—for routine bloodwork. Audre shared that she was having a heart issue and made an appointment to see Dr. Kim at Hackensack the next day.

“Audre was quite sick. She has a very weak heart,” explains Dr. Kim, who says Audre’s heart condition had been worsening for months prior to her episode, but was being managed with medication. The news from Charles likely created stress, which in turn elevated her pulse beyond what her heart could handle. “Her arteries are actually open, but her heart is so weak that there are times when it’s not able to pump enough blood to itself. That’s what was happening when I saw her.”

Side-by-side Recovery

Audre was admitted to a room on the third floor, while Charles was in a room on the fourth floor. Charles was wheeled downstairs to visit Audre prior to his scheduled heart surgery—a quadruple bypass that was performed the next day by George Batsides, M.D., chief of cardiac surgery at Hackensack.

“Charles is still relatively young and very active, so I knew he would do well, and he did,” says Dr. Batsides. “From beginning to end, his only concern was his wife. It was basically the first thing he said to me when I met him: ‘How soon can we get this done? I need to get out of the hospital, so I can take care of her.’”

In fact, the first thing Charles did when he woke up from surgery was request a pen and paper so he could write Audre a love note, which nurses hand-delivered to her with a heart-shaped pillow. The nursing team even arranged for them to spend the rest of their hospital stays in the same room.

“The team at Hackensack, and the distance they’re willing to go to make sure you’re taken care of and comfortable, is amazing,” says Audre, who during all of this was undergoing treatment of her own. She received medication to treat her heart failure, received a defibrillator interrogation and had a PICC line installed to accommodate intravenous heart medication that she continued taking until her next intervention—a heart and kidney transplant that she received in April.

“If your heart is like an old engine that’s not working so well, we can give it continuous medication through an IV that’s like gasoline to help it pump more efficiently,” Dr. Kim explains.

Today, both husband and wife are at home and doing well. Although they give their doctors and nurses most of the credit, one can’t help but wonder if their love for one another also played a healing role.

Dr. Batsides thinks it did. “Studies show people who have close family relationships have a smoother recovery and a better healing process,” he says. “It wasn’t just the nuts and bolts of surgery. It was the emotional component of their story that helped them both get through this.”

Audre agrees. “We have ups and downs just like anybody else. But when you’re best friends, you’re invested,” she says. “You’re not going anywhere. We took vows—in sickness and in health—and we meant every bit of them.”

Next Steps & Resources:

Meet our sources: George Batsides, M.D., Bernard Kim, M.D. and Sunil Khanna, M.D. To make an appointment with one of them or with a doctor near you, call 800-822-8905 or visit our website.

Learn more about comprehensive cardiac care available at Hackensack Meridian Health

Can COVID-19 cause a heart attack?

What does a cardiac stress test reveal?

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.

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