As Ray Goff likes to put it, a black snake crashed his daughter’s wedding.
Both of Ray’s daughters were married on his beautiful farm in Oconee County. During one of the ceremonies, a black snake tried to join the wedding party.
“I just grabbed him behind the head and carried him off into the woods,” Ray says, “and then we got back to the wedding.”
Relocating a live snake takes a strong heart. Ray’s cardiac care team at St. Mary’s will tell you he has one. In fact, it’s something of a job requirement for a successful franchise owner and the former head coach of the University of Georgia football team: strong heart, thick skin.
But silently, invisibly over the years, one of his heart’s blood vessels was slowly being narrowed by cholesterol and inflammation. On Aug. 2, 2015, the narrow spot in his coronary artery closed almost completely, slowing blood flow to a trickle. The heart muscle that depended on that blood supply began to suffer and die.
It didn’t feel like a heart attack
It was a Sunday evening, and Ray had been working on his farm, doing the usual chores: mowing the grass, feeding his daughter’s horses, making sure the dogs had water on a hot summer afternoon.
Then he began having a burning sensation in his chest. His left arm hurt. He felt weak – not his normal, energetic self. Maybe it was the heat. He went inside, where his friend, Mary, immediately became concerned. She urged him to take an aspirin and call his doctor, Patrick Brooks, M.D., with Athens Internal Medicine Associates. Ray thought she was over-reacting, but called Dr. Brooks anyway.
“He told me to get to the emergency room right away because of my family history,” Ray says.
Ray couldn’t believe he was having a heart attack. It didn’t feel anything like the heart attacks he had seen in movies or TV shows. He didn’t have terrible pain and he was still up and walking around, even if he didn’t feel normal. He drove halfway to St. Mary’s, turned back for home, reconsidered, turned around again, and drove to the emergency department.
The diagnostics were clear: he was having a heart attack.
“Heart attack symptoms often are completely different from what we see in the media,” says Clay Chappell, M.D., an interventional cardiologist with Oconee Heart and Vascular Center. “We tend to think of chest-gripping, falling-to-the-floor pain, but frequently heart attack symptoms are less dramatic. Coach Goff’s presentation was not out of the ordinary: discomfort, pressure or a burning sensation in the chest or back; pain or numbness in the arm or jaw; a general feeling of malaise or even impending doom. These can all be signs that a heart attack is happening.”
Dr. Chappell recommended that Ray undergo a cardiac catheterization procedure to reopen the diseased artery. In the Cath Lab, Dr. Chappell accessed an artery in Ray’s wrist and carefully threaded a long, thin tube called a catheter up the blood vessel until it was close to his heart. Using a dye that blocks x-rays, Dr. Chappell found the partially blocked coronary artery. He then inflated a tiny balloon inside the blockage to re-open the artery and implanted a medicated spring called a stent to hold it open for years to come.
“My procedure was a success, my care was excellent, and I was in and out of the hospital in less than 48 hours,” Ray says. “I came in with a heart attack on Sunday and went home with my heart working again on Tuesday.”
First down and goal to go
But, to use a football analogy, getting the blood vessel re-opened was only the first play of a drive to reach the end zone – better health. Ray had a first down, but the goal was still a long way away.
“I’ve learned it’s not the stent that saves you, it’s what you do after that,” he states.
Ray’s recovery continued with two major lines of offense: diet and exercise. Guided by St. Mary’s, Ray began trading his old, unhealthy eating habits for new ones that would better protect his heart and blood vessels. Trimming fat and cholesterol is not easy, he admits, but he is feeling better because of it.
The exercise component has been more enjoyable. Dr. Chappell referred Ray into St. Mary’s Phase II Cardiac Rehabilitation program, led by registered respiratory therapist Todd Drake.
“Rehab is kind of fun,” Ray says. “I’m part of a group of guys and we go to St. Mary’s to work out with Todd monitoring us every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. It’s a 12-week program. After Phase 2 is done, you can continue at for as long as you like, so our guys have stuck together. We have a good time.
“Ever since my heart attack, people ask me how I feel. I feel better. My heart is getting more oxygen. Rehab is helping, too. I feel better than I have in a long time.”
Ray’s expression becomes serious.
“I almost didn’t go to the hospital,” he says. “I’m so thankful I did. It’s important to do this for my children and grandchildren – and for myself. I have things to live for. I’ve been to every state but Rhode Island and Wisconsin and every continent but Africa and Antarctica. I want to see my grandchildren grow up.
“I’m very grateful for people in healthcare, especially St. Mary’s,” he adds. “I would recommend St. Mary’s to anyone.”
St. Mary’s Cardiac Services provides the finest in emergency diagnostics to detect and treat heart attacks quickly, saving precious time and heart muscle. Electrophysiology studies, angioplasties and stenting procedures are performed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week on-site at St. Mary’s state-of-the-art Catheterization and Electrophysiology Laboratory. Local EMS, Emergency Department staff and Cath Lab technicians share a commitment to quality and hold a “door-to-device” time well below the national average.
St. Mary’s Heart Failure program was one of the first 25 in the country certified by the Joint Commission and has celebrated back-to-back recertification since 2007. Cardiac patients are educated and encouraged in making healthy lifestyle choices and committing to a healthy future with St. Mary’s three phases of Cardiac Rehabilitation from the hospital to St. Mary’s Wellness Center, the areas only Medical Fitness Center.