Patient Stories

Your Life Can Change in a Heartbeat: Continual Care During COVID-19

Feb. 20, 2021

Even during a global pandemic, heart disease remains the leading cause of death for men and women in the U.S.

While we continue to see COVID-19 cases in our communities, healthcare systems across the nation are seeing a decrease in the number of patients getting medical attention for cardiac issues, whether it’s sudden heart attacks or long-standing conditions.

Many patients who suspect or know they have a heart condition have been reluctant to seek care during the pandemic. This has led to about a 23% drop in visits to the emergency department for heart attacks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Naseer Khan, MD, UC Health interventional cardiologist and assistant professor in the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, expressed his concern about patients delaying the care they need. “It’s a really big problem, especially during a pandemic,” he said. “We are seeing patients delaying to seek medical care because they’re so afraid of coming to the emergency room or the hospital.”

Heart problems? Every minute counts.

If a patient is experiencing an abnormal heartbeat or is having blocked blood flow to their heart, they need medical attention right away. A heart attack can cause permanent damage to the heart muscle within minutes.

By delaying help, a patient can end up with a serious prognosis, even death.

One of Dr. Khan’s patients, Will Achberger, 56, experienced a real-life story of hope by surviving a full-blown heart attack that led to cardiac arrest. While Will’s outcome is an example of hope, his case was still fatal.

Will was down for multiple hours, meaning he was unconscious, had no pulse and was not breathing. Fortunately, Will was quickly transferred to UC Health’s West Chester Hospital, where Dr. Khan and the cardiac catheterization laboratory (cath lab) team provided leading-edge care to give Will a promising outcome.

Dr. Khan and the cath lab team discovered that Will had a clot in his heart artery. Will’s left anterior descending artery (LAD) had critical blockage.

When this occurs, blood flow to the left side of the heart stops, which causes the heart to stop beating altogether. LAD is also called the “widowmaker artery” because it supplies a large portion of the heart muscles. People who get blockage in this artery sometimes cannot even make it to the hospital.

Within 15 minutes, Will’s UC Health care team was able to open the artery and have a stent placed to establish blood flow to the heart again.

Will’s case is an example of defying the odds. At one point, his care team was discussing with his family about the possibility of him having long-term effects, such as brain damage. Due to Dr. Khan and the cath lab team providing expert care in minutes, Will survived a high-mortality case.

Changing Your Life in a Heartbeat

Will’s care with Dr. Khan has not stopped since his cardiac arrest. He visits Dr. Khan regularly in his outpatient clinic to assess his overall heart health. He had an appointment with Dr. Khan recently on Jan. 19, 2021, the one-year anniversary of his cardiac arrest.

“I felt like there was something very fitting about seeing Dr. Khan on that particular day again,” said Will.

Will takes medications now that he has a stent, and his clinic visits usually consist of doing bloodwork to ensure his cholesterol remains low while monitoring his heart’s recovery with ultrasounds.

When recovering from a heart attack, as Will is currently doing, there are a few measures you can take to help take care of yourself, which include:

  • Don’t push yourself. You may feel better. But listen to your body. Don’t push yourself too hard or too fast. If you go back to work, think about going part-time at first.
  • Build in some stress breaks. Every few hours, stop what you’re doing. Do some deep breathing or visualization.
  • Get enough sleep. This is even more important after a heart attack. Sleep helps your body heal.
  • Stay alert for signs of another heart attack. Get help right away if you think you’re having another heart attack. The sooner you get treatment, the less damage will be done to your heart.
  • Keep your new good habits. Be mindful of the good habits you've learned. Don't go back to your past unhealthy lifestyle.

Life after a heart attack is an adjustment. It is important to maintain healthy habits on your own along with regularly consulting with your physician. Throughout his recovery and during COVID-19, Will has been visiting Dr. Khan for follow-up appointments.

“UC Health has given me the upper hand in surviving and recovering as well as I have,” Will said. “I can’t thank UC Health enough. Starting with the Emergency Department team, to Dr. Khan and the cath team, they saved my life. They are miracle workers who go above and beyond to give me the care I need.”

UC Health is taking steps to prevent exposure to COVID-19 so that physicians and clinical teams are ready to care for patients who have health problems unrelated to the virus. To do so, UC Health is keeping patients safe by following these steps:

  • Testing and screening patients and staff members for COVID-19.
  • Use of face masks and personal protective equipment (PPE).
  • Thorough cleaning and disinfecting around facilities, including patient rooms.
  • Social distancing of at least 6 feet.
  • Frequent hand washing and continual use of hand sanitizer.

Signs and Symptoms of a Heart Attack

Will felt blindsided when he had a heart attack that led to cardiac arrest. He has no family history of heart failure, he does not have diabetes and there were no other warning signs for him. He was a cigar smoker, but has since quit.

If suffering from a heart attack, patients can experience several symptoms. While there are many warning signs, frequent ones include:

  • Chest discomfort. Most heart attacks involve discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back. It can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, burning, fullness, tightness or pain. It is often described as something heavy sitting on your chest.
  • Discomfort in other areas of the upper body. Symptoms can include pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.
  • Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort.
  • Other signs may include breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.

Like men, women most commonly have chest pain or discomfort as a heart attack symptom. However, women also are more likely than men to have less common symptoms, which include shortness of breath, heartburn, nausea and vomiting, back pain or jaw pain.

What about non-emergency heart conditions?

According to the CDC, one person dies every 36 seconds in the U.S. from cardiovascular disease. One of the more preventative ways to monitor cardiovascular disease is to get routine care for your heart health needs before they become an emergency.

At UC Health, patients can visit with their physicians in person or do virtual visits for non-emergency consultations. This allows patients to meet with their cardiologist in real-time by computer, tablet and smartphone in the comfort of their own home.

UC Health patients should speak with their doctor first to see if a video visit is right for them. For new patients, or any patient with questions, they can call 513-475-8000 for further information.