It wasn’t until the morning after her heart attack that Pat Otterness realized she could have died.
“I asked one of the nurses how serious it was and she said I’d gotten to the hospital just in time,” Otterness says. “Knowing that, I feel really lucky to be alive.”
Otterness, 73, was driving home to Lovingston from Charlottesville on a particularly hot and humid afternoon when she began feeling uncomfortable.“I was breathing rapidly and sweating heavily,” she says. “I thought it was the heat or that my blood sugar could be low.”
Like many women, Otterness didn’t immediately recognize the signs of a heart attack.“My brain was saying, ‘these are symptoms of a heart attack,’ but I still couldn’t believe it,” she says. “I thought with a heart attack, I’d pass out or feel fuzzy, but I didn’t.”
Though she was in disbelief, when Otterness got home, she blurted out to her son, “I think I’m having a heart attack.”
Otterness’s son dialed 911. When first responders arrived, Otterness asked to be taken to UVA Medical Center. “I wouldn’t have considered going anywhere else,” she says. “I had my babies there and spine surgery there. It’s the place I go when I need medical attention.”
First responders notified UVA Pegasus Air Transport, and 20 minutes later, the helicopter arrived in Lovingston to transport Otterness to UVA, says Jermaine Clayborne, RN, administrative coordinator with Pegasus. The crew immediately completed an electrocardiogram (EKG) that confirmed Otterness was having a heart attack.
While in transport, the crew began treating her with an IV drug to open the heart arteries and improve blood flow. They also radioed the emergency department at UVA to alert physicians to Otterness’s condition and share the results of the EKG, Clayborne says.
“It was a Friday evening,” says interventional cardiologist Lawrence Gimple, MD. “Having the Pegasus crew in radio communication with us meant that when they got here, we were ready.”
Upon Otterness’s arrival at UVA, the multidisciplinary team quickly determined she was having a type of heart attack called STEMI (ST-elevation myocardial infarction). A blood clot was causing a severe blockage in the artery on the front of her heart and she needed a cardiac catheterization and angioplasty to restore blood flow.
Otterness was rushed to one of UVA Heart and Vascular Center’s catheterization labs, where the team inserted a catheter as wide as a human hair into a blood vessel in her groin and then threaded it to the blockage in her heart. They used a small balloon to dislodge the clot and open the artery, then placed stents to keep it open and blood flowing.
When treating a patient with a heart attack, every minute counts, says Michael Ragosta, MD, an interventional cardiologist and director of cardiac catheterization labs at UVA Heart and Vascular Center.
“The faster we open the artery, the less damage occurs,” he says. “We have a team ready 24 hours a day, seven days a week and a finely tuned system to rapidly get the patient into the cardiac catheterization lab so we can reopen the artery.”
UVA is the only hospital in the community with a team on site day or night, 365 days a year that can perform the procedure that saved Otterness’s life.
The Road to Recovery
Within a week of going home from the hospital, Otterness visited the UVA Heart Attack Recovery Clinic, a unique clinic UVA established to help prevent patients from being readmitted to the hospital after a heart attack.
“In the hospital, patients and families are often in a state of nervousness,” Gimple says. “Patients often go home and don’t quite remember how to take their medication or what changes they need to make to their diet. UVA has a highly interdisciplinary, team-based clinic that makes sure patients get everything they need for recovery.”
The team helped Otterness create a rehabilitation plan tailored specifically to her needs. Otterness says her son has taken over preparing meals for her, conscientiously following the advice they received from the clinic’s dietitian. The Recovery Clinic staff also worked with the UVA Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Rehabilitation and Wellness Clinic to make sure Otterness could exercise safely.
“She always has a huge smile on her face and works hard,” says Tricia Cady, a registered nurse at the Rehabilitation and Wellness Clinic. “She’s definitely progressing.”
Six weeks after her heart attack, Otterness had lost 10 pounds and her doctor lowered her dose of insulin. “I have big plans for the future,” she says. “I’m really lucky to be here.”