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Doctors: Your Advice Can Be the Difference Between Life and Death

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Dear Doctors,

Last year on Mother's Day, I contacted one of your colleagues by leaving a message with an answering service that I had bad heartburn. I received a response about 10 minutes after I placed the call. I described my heartburn telling the doctor on-call that I hadn't eaten anything to have caused it and I remembered having some shortness of breath the night before. The doctor then gave his opinion.

He said, "It could be esophageal, but I can't rule out a heart attack. Take an antacid and if it doesn't get better, go to the emergency room."

Well, I didn't take an antacid, as all the ones I had in my house were expired. My husband suggested that we just go to the emergency room. Thankfully, he was at home with me that day. Not because he wanted me to go to the emergency room, but because the doctor didn't.

When the doctor stated that I could be having a heart attack, there was no urgency in his voice. There didn't seem to be any grave concern. He didn't question me if I was alone or had others with me to watch how I was feeling. If it were any other day, I could have easily been home alone with my kids at school and husband at work. If it were any other day, I would have just kept going about my business because I was 44 years old and I was in disbelief that it could have been a heart attack. If it were any other day, I might have been driving my car and running errands. If it were any other day, something as simple as a phone call, the doorbell ringing, grabbing the laundry or dealing with my kids -- anything could have taken priority over heartburn.

If it were any other day, I would be dead.

Within an hour of talking with the doctor, I collapsed at home and my husband performed Hands Only CPR. Paramedics arrived and used an automatic external defibrillator (AED) to shock my heart back into rhythm. I traveled via Life Star from our local community hospital to a major hospital in our area where they discovered I had a 70 percent blockage of my left anterior descending artery, which I'm sure you are aware is commonly known as the widow maker (in this case it would have been "the widower maker"). The placement of the blockage was too precarious to put in a stent, so the doctors put me under therapeutic hypothermia to stabilize my body and prevent any organ damage in the hopes of getting me to bypass surgery. About 24 hours later, I went into cardiac arrest three times when my 70 percent blockage became 100 percent. I was shocked 13 times with an AED and the decision was made to place a stent -- the risky option became the only option. Thanks to the quick thinking and skilled doctors and nurses, it was a successful procedure!

I'm writing to you all not to scold your colleague or blame him for what happened. I thank him for mentioning it might be a heart attack, as I would have never thought that could be a possibility. However, I write this letter to you so that you will urge anyone with any possible heart attack symptoms to seek immediate help! With over 326,000 out-of-hospital cardiac arrests occurring in the United States annually, immediate attention for a potential heart attack is critical.

Heart attack symptoms need to be taken seriously and assessed as soon as possible. Minutes matter when "it could be a heart attack." According to the American Heart Association, 90 percent of people who suffer out-of-hospital cardiac arrests die, yet CPR, especially if performed immediately, can double or triple a cardiac arrest victim's chance of survival. The better response would have been to take an antacid and get to the hospital immediately by calling 911 so I could have received help and be monitored as quickly as possible. While a false alarm might have been embarrassing and yielded a hefty medical bill, dying would have been worse.

I hope that in the future, you will all err on the side of caution and encourage immediate action. And to any patient reading this letter, if you feel anything that could be the symptom of a heart attack, please call 911 immediately.

Our hearts are in your hands. No doctor is in the business of saving a patient's pride or bank account; you are in the business of saving our lives.

Heartfelt regards,
Leigh Pechillo
Heart Survivor