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Surviving a ‘widow-maker’

When Jerry had a heart attack, EMS and St. Mary’s saved his life

Imagine you come home from the store and, seconds later, an ambulance comes rushing into your driveway. Imagine you run to your husband, who is sitting on the porch looking pale and weak, and ask what’s going on.

Imagine he says, “I think I’m having a heart attack.”

LaVarne Woodie of Winder doesn’t have to imagine. She knows exactly how it feels.

“The doctors at St. Mary’s saved my husband’s life,” LaVarne says. “That’s why he’s here today and he’s doing great.”

Jerry nods and adds, “I’m 70 years old, and I’ve still got a few more good years left in me, thanks to St. Mary’s.”

The storm after the storm

Jerry and LaVarne own Wood-I Appraisal Services in Winder. They also are homeowners in the Winder area, and when Tropical Storm Irma roared through on Sept. 11, 2017, their property took a beating. Their large family rallied to help, but along the way, a pair of loppers got lost. On Sept. 24, as Jerry and LaVarne worked to finish the job, he asked her to go buy another set.

A few moments later, something went very wrong.

“I felt a sharp pain, like someone just hit me right there, in the chest,” he says. He went inside to get some water. It didn’t help. He started to feel nauseated and his arm hurt. He knew what he had to do. He called 911. Then he called his children.

LaVarne drove up just before the ambulance arrived. Stunned and frightened, the family came together as Barrow County EMS personnel loaded Jerry into the ambulance and sped away.

On the way, they transmitted Jerry’s EKG readout to St. Mary’s Emergency Department. It showed he was having a major heart attack – a “widow-maker.” On arrival, he was rushed straight to the Cardiac Catheterization Laboratory. Every minute mattered.

Waiting for him was interventional cardiologist Patrick Willis, MD, of Oconee Heart and Vascular Center, part of St. Mary’s Medical Group. Within minutes, Dr. Willis had inserted a catheter – a long, narrow, flexible tube – into a blood vessel in Jerry’s leg. Guided by real-time x-ray images, he threaded the catheter up to Jerry’s blocked coronary artery. He could see that a large portion of Jerry’s heart was not getting enough blood to survive.

Jerry Woodie heart attack storyCare beyond expectation

“I kept passing in and out,” Jerry says. “The doctor told me, ‘OK, we’re there at the blockage. I’m going to put this stent in. It’s going to hurt, but as soon as this hurt passes, you’ll feel instant relief.’ And sure enough, everything he said was true.”

Dr. Willis deployed a miniature balloon to reopen Jerry’s blocked blood vessel and implant a stent, a device that looks like a tiny, tubular chain-link fence. Then the balloon deflated and blood flow returned to the formerly blocked artery. That’s when the pain stopped. The balloon opened the clogged artery. The stent remains in place to keep it open.

Jerry went to ICU. Dr. Willis went to find LaVarne.

“He came in after he had operated on Jerry and I just fell in his arms,” she says. “I’ve never experienced a more loving and caring person. He let me cry on his shoulder for as long as I wanted to, and let me know that everything was OK, and that I still had my Jerry.”

Jerry and LaVarne soon met the cardiologist who would be supervising Jerry’s care during the rest of his stay at St. Mary’s: Stephen Lowman, MD, a partner with Dr. Willis at Oconee Heart and Vascular Center.

The Woodies were amazed.

Dr. Lowman listened to them, talked to them, told them what was going on and made them part of the decision-making process. He coordinated Jerry’s care with other physicians in and out of the hospital. He monitored every change as Jerry progressed.

“But the most beautiful thing is, he takes the time to pray with you,” LaVarne says. “That is so important to us and our family. I could never praise Dr. Lowman, Dr. Willis and the team at St. Mary’s enough. There just aren’t enough words.”

After Jerry’s discharge, Dr. Lowman referred him to St. Mary’s Cardiac Rehabilitation Program. Three days a week, Jerry comes to St. Mary’s for exercise classes under the watchful eye of Cardiac Rehab Coordinator Todd Drake, RRT. Assisted by telemetric monitoring for safety and peace of mind, Todd helps cardiac patients rebuild endurance, strengthen surviving heart tissue, and work to minimize the risk of heart failure or another heart attack.

“My goal, and the doctor’s goal, is to get healthier and off some of the blood thinners I’m on right now,” Jerry says. “That’s where I’m headed, because I’ve still got a lot of living I want to do.”

Jerry Woodie and familyAfter Phase 2 Cardiac Rehab, Jerry can transition into Phase 3 Cardiac Rehab at St. Mary’s Wellness Center. It offers lifelong education and exercise to help survivors maintain their maximum level of fitness and protection against a future heart attack.

Meanwhile, Jerry and LaVarne have both become permanent patients of Dr. Lowman and have also transferred their primary care to Matthew Farmer, MD, with Athens Internal Medicine Associates, another practice within St. Mary’s Medical Group.

As with Drs. Willis and Lowman, they feel Dr. Farmer is a physician who truly cares about them.

“Everyone is working together as a team,” LaVarne says. “It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen at any other hospital or with any other doctors. It’s amazing. It’s something you want to share with everyone.”