Heart attack survivors tell tales of lives rekindled
Sometimes to appreciate life a little more, one needs to go through a life-altering experience, one which reminds them that yes, life is precious.
Literally thousands of individuals go through such unfortunate ordeals, but when they survive and come through the other side, life turns brighter and more appreciated.
Heart attacks and surviving them, is one such reminder that life needs to be cherished.
To celebrate these survivors and to help search for cures and treatments of heart disease, stroke and illnesses, the American Heart Association holds its annual fundraiser nationwide, which is called the Heart Walk.
For local residents of Sanibel, its Heart Walk is entering its third year, and will take place at the new Doc Ford’s parking lot, across from Bailey’s, starting at 1 p.m. and the 5K walk starting at 2 p.m.
Heart Disease and Stroke is still the No. 1 killer of both men and women in the US. In 2013, 740,000 Americans died from heart disease and stroke.
But four local residents didn’t add their name to those unfortunate stats, instead they persevered through their life-threatening ordeal and was able to walk out on the other side a changed person.
Those four, who will help celebrate the Third Annual Heart Walk on Sanibel, include Chuck Bergstrom, Carole Fallon, George Campean and Art Cassell.
Each of their stories are different, but with one common denominator – survival.
An international flight from JFK Airport in New York to Narita, Tokyo, Japan on May 31, 1981, for Art Cassell ended up being a memorable one, even though he was not able to complete it.
The flight was a 14-hour nonstop one, but after Cassell was feeling chest pains and perspiring heavily, he sought the aid of a stewardess.
“She looked at me and without me saying anything, she asked me if I was having chest pains,” Cassell said. “I said I did and she immediately phoned the pilot. The plane turned around and headed back to the gate.”
A team of paramedics met Cassell at the gate, where he was given an EKG, and promptly was told he was having a heart attack.
“I was 46-years-old and had never had any medical problems in my life,” Cassell said. “I never smoked cigarettes, but was overweight and didn’t manage my diet and got almost no aerobic exercise.”
Cassell was treated at Jamaica Hospital in Queens for the next 10 days, before being released.
A heart test two years later showed major blockage in one of Cassell’s coronary arteries, which ultimately resulted in a six-way coronary bypass surgery.
“This was 1983 and I was now 48 years old,” Cassell said. “My life changed forever.”
Cassell’s life-altering changes included changing his diet, exercising regularly and regular visits to his cardiologist. He also has had a defibrillator implanted in 2004 and a stent in 2008.
“I am now 78 and play golf three to four times a week, walk three miles a day and travel,” Cassell said. “I enjoy my family and live as though I never had these problems. The fight is not over, because heart attacks and strokes are still the number one killer of both men and women in America.
“We need to do more.”
Given no warning of an impending open heart surgery procedure in early 2014, George Campean was forced to realize that heart disease and strokes can affect anyone, anywhere.
In April of 2014, Campean suffered shortness of breath while walking the stairs. A heart test ultimately forced the stunning news that Campean needed heart surgery.
After a second opinion, it was discovered that his aortic valve was functioning at only 50 percent.
A “once in a lifetime” trip to Africa was put on hold, but after several more tests were conducted, the Campean excursion was lived.
After returning from Africa, he underwent heart surgery on July 9, 2014. Only 48 hours later, he was walking and four days later he was able to go home.
Only two aspirins were needed as medication, as well.
That is not to say that everything was perfect. Campean paced. He was unable to stay seated for long periods of time and concentration was extremely difficult. Watching television or reading was impossible.
In addition, his memory was impaired. Before the surgery he had a wonderful grasp of names, dates, numbers and places but after the surgery it seemed to be gone.
It takes months, or even years, to regain full memory function after heart surgery, but eventually, Campean’s life turned back to normal.
Foresight of seeing a doctor before things regressed, was a key to his survival. His doctor told him that his symptoms foretold the beginning of what is called a “five-year cycle” and people who ignore those signs, begin a countdown to death.
He now participates in Sanibel organizations like CHR, Kiwanis and F.I.S.H. and lives a full life with his family.
Just over 10 years ago, Chuck Bergstrom’s life changed.
What felt like symptoms of an ear infection, kicked into gear of him making a doctor’s appointment after not “feeling quite right”.
Even though the classic symptoms were not prevalent, Bergstrom was rushed to the hospital where tests showed he had three blockages at 90-percent and a positive MRSA (staph) test.
He needed triple bypass surgery.
“When I was told I needed open-heart surgery to save my life, everything seemed surreal,” Bergstrom said. “To clear the MRSA, I was put in a medically induced coma. My daughter flew in from Indiana, and my wife was by my side. Periodically the doctors would bring me out of the coma, but I don’t remember much of what was going on or discussed.”
The major scare obviously changed Bergstrom’s habits. He exercises “religiously” and now has a modified diet. He makes all his cardiologist appointments (twice a year) and has a regular routine.
“By supporting the AHA and by focusing on my own heart health and well-being, l’ve been able to give hope to others that a healthier life, a better life, is attainable,” Bergstrom said. “I am lucky that my heart attack did not have significant long-term effects. It was a wake-up call to me about diet and exercise and lifestyle changes, one that I am grateful to be able to share with others.”
It will be a Fourth of July Carol Fallon will never forget, since it was the day she suffered her heart attack.
On a muggy July 4, 1997, Fallon was riding in the passenger seat in the families’ car en route to Toronto, where her husband, Michael, had taken a two-year assignment.
The signs were picked up early by Fallon, since she worked as an RN nurse and within seconds, the numbness spread from her left arm to her jaw.
Michael Fallon recognized his wife was having a heart attack and veered across the highway to an exit with the familiar blue “H” on it.
A police station was the Fallon’s first stop, where an ambulance was called. The Mississauga Hospital ironically had nine new beds in its Cardiac Intensive Care Unit.
She was given TPA medication, which dissolves clots, to prevent further heart damage. It was discovered Carole Fallon had four blockages in her left anterior descending artery, otherwise known as a widow maker.
“I was diagnosed with single coronary artery disease and as a woman, given a poor prognosis,” Fallon said. “I was released after four days, and put on a cardiac medication regime to await intervention or surgery.”
Fallon’s stress from her job, her weight and the fact she has a family history of heart disease and attacks (her father had a heart attack at 53), contributed to the cause.
“Now, 16 years later at age 69, I am without stents, never had a bypass and I am medically managed and symptom free,” Fallon said. “Changing my lifestyle by eating right, exercising and learning ways of coping with stress have worked for me. I do have regular cardiac checkups and monitor my cholesterol.”