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Celebrating Heart Month - The Stroke That Saved My Life

Heart Health

In his late 60s, Abe Merritt was the picture of health. A three-decade career in firefighting kept him working out and staying in shape. Then one morning Abe woke up and asked his son, “What day is it? Where’s my little brother?” His son replied Tuesday and he’s moved out of town. Abe responded in shock and then minutes later asked, “What day is it? Where’s my little brother?"

The repetitive questions continued to his bewildered wife and son until Abe’s training as an EMT kicked in. “I think I am having a stroke,” he exclaimed. Quick action brought him to Sonora Regional Medical Center where he was diagnosed with transient ischemic attack – TIA – sometimes labeled mini-stroke. For Abe, this kicked into motion a series of tests that eventually led to the diagnosis of severe aortic stenosis.

Symptoms like fatigue and breathlessness did not lead Abe to believe he had a heart condition. “I just thought I was getting old,” Abe explains. “I was fortunate to have this TIA.”

Abe was referred to Stanford where his doctors told him he had one to three years to live. Open heart surgery repaired his faulty heart valve and reversed his prognosis. “Now I can live as long as my body will allow,” Abe says. “The one condition that could have killed me has been taken care of.”

But recovering from open heart surgery is no easy feat. For Abe the experience was extremely humbling. He had never felt so helpless. Waking up from surgery strapped to a ventilator, Abe was in a panic. His nurse instructed him to find his happy place. Abe thought for a moment and realized, “I’m 69 years old and I’ve never had a happy place!” Then he remembered his puppy, Bella Grace, and was able to relax.

For six weeks Abe spent most of his time in his recliner and taking short walks. He was instructed not to lift, push or pull and any exertion was out of the question. This kept Abe from his work as a massage therapist while his clients waited for him to get well. Abe’s surgery was November 4, 2016. The nearly seven-hour operation, along with the lengthy rest and recovery period, left Abe’s body weak and atrophied.

Then, in January, it was time to start the Cardiac Rehabilitation program at Sonora Regional Medical Center. “In one month I was strong enough to get back to work,” Abe says about seeing his first client in February. He has slowly increased his weights and speed on the treadmill – even jogging for a few minutes while maintaining a safe heart rate – as monitored on the program’s new telemetry system.

The Medical Center recently purchased a state-of-the-art cardiac and pulmonary rehabilitation telemetry monitoring system called VersaCare designed to monitor and document related information for patients undergoing a rehabilitative exercise program. This system helps document all aspects of patient care including diagnosis, exercise prescription, education, risk factors, and patient progress and has the ability to print EKG strips. The new system offers lightweight transmitters that the patients wear while exercising at Cardiac Rehab, allowing staff to monitor the rhythm strips continuously so that patients can exercise safely. And the information is easily shared with the patient’s physician with a database that allows a simple way to compare pre-rehabilitation and post-rehabilitation statistical values such as weight, exercise tolerance, oxygen levels and blood sugars.

Cardiac Rehabilitation is a patient-focused exercise program designed to help individuals who have had a heart attack, stent placement, coronary artery bypass surgery, heart valve replacement, heart transplant or heart failure regain confidence and quality of life through exercise, education good nutrition, stress management, medication and weight management. This physician-prescribed program is guided by a cardiac care registered nurse and an exercise physiologist. If you or someone you love may benefit from Cardiac Rehabilitation, talk to your cardiologist or call (209) 536-3721.