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Cardiac Care

Most people bleed red. But despite growing up in Illinois, Raymond Knight has always bled Dodger Blue. His fandom spans decades and transcends geography – following the team from Ebbets Field in Brooklyn to Chavez Ravine in Los Angeles. He’s seen the Dodgers win the World Series, finish in last place and can practically navigate the tunnels of Dodger Stadium blindfolded.

Most people gravitate toward the finish line, but for Knight, crossing the last item off his Dodger-bucket list means going back to the beginning.

It was the dog days of summer 1979 – 5,184 Dodger games ago. A happy husband, father of three and proud new grandpa, Knight’s days were filled with the joy of family and a bubbling career as a water operator for the state.

On a mid-summer Monday, Knight woke up with severe pain in his chest, an unusual feeling for the healthy 61-year-old. His wife, Mariam, immediately took him to the doctor. That uneventful Monday turned out to be anything but: Knight had suffered a heart attack. On July 26, 1979, he was admitted to San Joaquin Community Hospital (SJCH) for triple bypass heart surgery.

Earlier in the 1970s, SJCH had become the first hospital in Kern County to perform open-heart surgery. Even in 1979, it was a still a relatively new phenomenon. Knight’s middle child, Patricia, vividly recalls nervously pacing the hospital waiting room.

“It was scary; we didn’t know what was going to happen. Dad wasn’t sick very often and this surgery was still uncommon at the time.”

For Patricia and the rest of the Knight family, comfort came in the form of a special nurse.

“Before the surgery our nurse came out and showed us a diagram, explaining exactly what they were going to do,” Patricia remembers. “Then during the surgery, she’d update us every 20 minutes or so. She was extremely compassionate and made us all feel better.”

As it turned out, the Knight family had more to celebrate than just good feelings: Knight made it through surgery without a hitch and was on his way to a full recovery.

Then and Now

In the four decades since introducing open-heart surgery – forever changing the course of local health care ­– SJCH has continued to be a pioneer for heart health in Kern County.  In 2009, SJCH became nationally accredited as a Chest Pain Center by the Society of Chest Pain Centers. Since opening, however, the Chest Pain Center has exceeded industry standards, once again establishing a new level of local heart care. 

After just one year of operation, the Chest Pain Center received the American Heart Association’s (AHA) Mission: Lifeline Bronze Performance Achievement Award. For Chest Pain Centers open for just one year, it’s the highest award given. If the Chest Pain Center continues to perform at the same standard over the next year, the hospital will receive the silver and gold awards. Indications are strong success will continue. 

One of the qualifications for being a Nationally Accredited Chest Pain Center is to have a door-to-balloon time of less than 90 minutes for heart attack patients. Quite simply, door-to-balloon time is the time from when a patient first comes to the hospital with heart attack symptoms until the moment their artery is unblocked.

According to quarterly data tracked in the AHA’s Action Registry, SJCH ranks number one in the nation for compliance with door-to-balloon time standards when compared to other hospitals similar in size, services and technology. For the last four quarters (from October 2009 to October 2010) SJCH has met the 90-minute standard 100 percent of the time.

For Kern County residents -- having some of the best care in the country in the heart of downtown Bakersfield is especially important.

“Around 45 percent of deaths in Kern County are heart-related,” said Stella Williams, Chest Pain Center coordinator. “That’s one of the highest totals in the nation.”

On average, it takes a Bakersfield resident more than two and a half hours to seek medical treatment after experiencing heart attack symptoms. As Williams explains, the longer an artery is blocked or partially blocked, the more heart muscle is damaged. Weakened heart muscle creates a vulnerability to further heart problems, which can lead to decreased quality of life and, eventually another heart attack.

To offset the times it takes heart attack patients to seek medical attention, SJCH has established an in-house door-to-balloon goal of 60 minutes for all heart attack cases – 30 minutes above-and-beyond the national standard. Earlier this year, SJCH achieved a milestone, unblocking one individual’s artery just 21 minutes after their arrival.

“As a Nationally Accredited Chest Pain Center, we’re literally ready any time – day, night or holiday – to rapidly diagnose and treat your heart condition, Williams said. “At [SJCH], we understand how critical it is to provide quick care. When you need us most, we’ll be ready.”

Where It All Begins

In the three decades following his triple bypass, Knight has been back to SJCH to have multiple procedures, including installation and subsequent replacement of a pacemaker. None of it has slowed the spry Knight down. Just one year after his heart surgery, Knight and Mariam drove their mobile home to Florida. More than 30 years later, Knight remains full of life, regularly meeting for games with friends and singing in the church choir. Mariam gives much credit to the hospital that’s been there through it all.

“We couldn’t have asked for better care over the years,” said Mariam, who’s visited SJCH for care a few times herself. “San Joaquin is our hospital. We have a choice, and that’s where we’ll always choose to go.”

Shortly after his 90th birthday – wearing his custom #90 jersey – Knight thought he was in heaven. For him, sitting on metal bleachers in the dry heat of an Arizona spring wasn’t far off.

He’d finally made it back to the beginning … to Dodgers Spring Training – crossing off the final item on his famous bucket list.