Timely chance connects patient with lifesaving procedure
Before this year, Rick Rochester wasn’t a big fan of doctors’ offices or hospitals – the idea of medical exams made him nervous, so he avoided them whenever possible.
But accompanying his wife, Brandy, to her own routine doctor’s appointment saved his life earlier this year.
“My doctor asked me if I ever experienced chest tightness, shortness of breath, coughing,” Brandy says.
“I said, ‘No, but he does,’” jerking a thumb toward her husband sitting nearby.
For years, 55-year-old Rick had periodically experienced what he dismissed as panic attacks – times when his chest tightened, his heart raced and he couldn’t catch his breath.
He had no inkling it was a pulmonary embolism, the third-highest cause of cardiovascular death in the United States and a high-mortality condition that can take the lives of adults who are otherwise perfectly healthy.
Catching a silent killer
Upon hearing his symptoms, Brandy’s doctor examined Rick and ordered an ECG to measure his heart activity.
Worrisome test results sent him to the Emergency Department of nearby Wyandot Memorial Hospital in Upper Sandusky, Ohio, where bloodwork suggested he may have endured a heart attack recently. Further investigation was needed.
The question then posed to the Rochesters: Where would they like to be transferred so that Rick could receive more specialized heart care?
“I was overwhelmed and hadn’t had time to research medical centers,” Brandy says. “But the doctor said, ‘If my family member needed heart care, I’d send them straight to Ohio State.’”
The Rochesters arrived that evening at the Richard M. Ross Heart Hospital at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. While nervously settling into his hospital room, Rick had reassured his wife that “God wasn’t done with him yet.”
In the morning, midway through a series of tests to gauge Rick’s heart health, he experienced another “panic attack.”
Through a strained voice, Rick said he just needed to catch his breath.
Then he collapsed, unconscious, in his wife’s arms.
“A nurse shouted for help while I went to the hallway,” Brandy says, “and white coats poured out of what seemed like every orifice of that hospital to save Rick.”
At that point, there weren’t many options for Rick, says Raymond Magorien, MD, the director of the Ohio State Wexner Medical Center’s Level I Cardiac & Vascular Emergency Program.
“Essentially, he was gone,” Magorien explains. “He was somewhat unique because he was experiencing a PEA – a pulseless electrical activity arrest, where the heart should be producing a pulse but isn’t.”
The choices were few: Let Rick die, or place him on a device that helps “oxygenate” the rest of his body while his heart recovers.
Rick happened to be in one of just a handful of medical centers in the Midwest that has such a device.
As a founding member of the National PERT (pulmonary embolism response team) Consortium, Ohio State has a multidisciplinary team that provides the fastest, highest-level care for patients with pulmonary embolism.
A swift-thinking, savvy group of doctors and nurses whisked Rick into open-heart surgery, where he was connected to an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) machine.
“The ECMO acts as a bridge to recover heart and lung function,” Magorien says. “Not only for massive pulmonary embolism, but also during bypass surgery and other cases, such as severe influenza, where the lungs need to recover.”
For Rick, the ECMO was a bridge to life.
But for Ohio State
“If we hadn’t been at Ohio State and were at home, Rick would have died instantly,” Brandy says.
The Rochesters are grateful not only for the lifesaving measures taken at the Ohio State Wexner Medical Center, but also for the care they received afterward.
“The staff took a lot of the burden off of me – just knowing that there was a nurse with him 24/7 was amazing, because I already had so much on my plate,” Brandy remembers.
Cory Lonsert, an Ohio State Wexner Medical Center patient experience coordinator, became an invaluable friend to the Rochesters while Rick was hospitalized.
“Cory, especially, helped me through so much – probably more than he should have,” Brandy admits. “The staff was caring and supportive enough that I trusted they would take care of him the way family would. I gained another family when we were here.”
Lonsert says the feeling was mutual – and that Brandy’s “quiet strength in crisis was a thing of beauty to behold.”
Life after ‘death’
Life for the Rochesters wasn’t simple even before Rick spent much of February and March 2017 in recovery and rehabilitation.
Rick had been a stay-at-home dad and musician. He helped care for his and Brandy’s 10-year-old son, Zakk, who has some special cognitive and physical needs after experiencing a stroke in the womb.
When Rick returned home, regular household duties were difficult. Cardiopulmonary arrest had robbed him of oxygen for long enough that he suffered some short-term memory loss.
At first, this made him struggle to keep track of schedules and everyday processes. He still frequently calls his wife for reminders.
“Rick has also always been on the quiet side, but it’s even worse now,” Brandy says. “He hardly talks at all. When you do talk to him, sometimes it takes him a while to process and answer.”
Brandy quit her job as an assistant manager at KFC in favor of a position with more flexible hours. She’s become a caretaker not only for Rick and Zakk, but also for her grandmother, whom she visits 25 hours a week.
Just weeks after Rick returned home from hospitalization and rehabilitation, Zakk experienced his first-ever seizure – a side effect for some children who have had a stroke.
A second followed in November.
“His neurologist said it could be stress-induced,” Brandy says. “Zakk worries about his dad a lot.”
The family is thankful, though, that Rick was home by then. He was the one to find Zakk quickly both times and get proper help.
And the Rochesters appreciate each step of Rick’s progress, taking no moment for granted.
“I wasn’t expecting him to be able to continue playing guitar the way he always did, but I can name songs and he’ll recall them with his fingers,” Brandy says.
“I don’t want to say we weren’t expecting him to return to everyday life – I knew he’d bounce back regardless – but I’m shocked at how quickly he’s recovered.”
Rick is now able to perform everyday chores, including the dishes and laundry. And life has normalized enough that Zakk “butts heads” with his dad as often as any kid his age.
“He’s got Brandy’s stubbornness,” Rick says with a laugh.
Taking a victory lap
Though a man of few words who avoids the spotlight, Rick doesn’t mind being the center of attention when he returns to the Ross Heart Hospital.
The Rochesters’ old friend Cory Lonsert has twice arranged for the family to meet with the people who cared for Rick – the inspiration for what is now an ongoing series of “victory lap” reunions between patients and care teams.
Patients in the surgical intensive care unit at the Ross Heart Hospital typically are transferred to other areas of the hospital to continue getting well as soon as they’ve stabilized. So the reunions allowed healthcare providers to finally see Rick upright and well, and Rick and Brandy got the opportunity to thank them.
“It validates the staff – to see someone vertical and alive and know you’re the reason they’re there is so valuable,” Lonsert says. “It shows them the fruits of their labor that they never get to see otherwise.”
Rick gets to feel like a rock star for a day, as the people who brought him back to life give him hugs and high fives.
And now that it’s clear just how lucky he was to receive the right medical care at the right time, he’s not quite as nervous about visiting a doctor’s office to maintain his health.