Paramedics rushed 59-nine-year-old Larry Hellem to Banner Desert Medical Center after finding him rolling in pain on the floor of his Gilbert home on Labor Day.
Earlier that day, Hellem had worked in his yard, vacuuming and trimming bushes. Feeling the typical Valley summer heat, Hellem grabbed a glass of water and jumped into his backyard pool to cool down while his wife, Lupe, went to the store.
Almost immediately, he felt tightness in the middle of his chest. It quickly got worse and Hellem climbed out of the pool and called his wife.
“I need your help. I’m sick,” Hellem groaned in a voicemail on his wife’s phone. After he hung up, he dialed 911. Heart attack was barely a passing thought for Hellem since it was stroke that ran in his family.
Paramedics correctly identified Hellem’s condition as a STEMI heart attack, a major heart attack with a nearly 100 percent blocked artery, said Dr. Josh Berkowitz, Hellem’s surgeon.
As Hellem was rushed into the operating room, things went from bad to worse. His heart quit beating while he was transferred onto the operating table. Berkowitz worked to quickly get it heart beating again and to open the blocked artery before major damage was done.
Two days later, Hellem walked out of the hospital, a little worse for wear but alive. A week later, he returned to work.
People have heart attacks everyday. Many live, others aren’t as lucky. What makes Hellem’s story different is this: The amount of time it took to treat him after his arrival at the hospital, often referred to as “door to balloon time,” was 18 minutes.
The national standard is 90 minutes. Banner Desert Medical Center received accreditation as a chest pain center by the Society of Chest Pain Centers on Oct. 1.
Hellem’s surgery was completed before Lupe Hellem could even make it to the hospital.
What’s more, Hellem had no high risk factors for heat attack. He doesn’t have high blood pressure or diabetes. His cholesterol was in normal ranges. He doesn’t smoke, isn’t overweight and there is no family history of heart disease.
Hellem’s story is one that many people should hear, Berkowitz said.
“We’re good at identifying high risk factors, but it creates a false sense of security,” he said. “Even without high risk factors, people still have a 5 to 10 percent risk. Everyone has things they can do to be more heart-healthy; no one has zero percent risk.”
In Hellem’s case, the heart attack was caused by cholesterol, which, although not high, was too high for him according to Berkowitz. The stress from the heat and possible dehydration probably contributed to it as well.
“The risk factors clearly aren’t perfect, and in Larry’s case, not predictive at all,” Berkowitz said.
“I’m 59 years old and my body has never let me down,” Hellem said. “This changes the way you think.”
Additionally, he didn’t suspect a heart attack because he didn’t feel any pain in his left arm.
“I don’t know how to explain it other than it was pain I could never imagine,” Hellem said. “I knew something was very wrong.”
It felt like a crushing feeling on his chest, like there was something heavy on top of it, Hellem said. There wasn’t any pain in his left arm, like he had heard there could be during a heart attack.
Quick action by Hellem and the medical team that treated him contributed to saving his life, Berkowitz said.
“If you have chest pain, seek medical attention right away,” Berkowitz said. “But if you are experiencing new chest pain, call 911 right away.”
Even with a smaller staff over the holiday weekend, there was total synergy, Berkowitz said.
“It seemed like I rolled right out of the ambulance and into the operating room,” Hellem said. “I couldn’t be happier with the paramedics, the medical team, everyone at the hospital. Everything just fell in line.”
From the diagnosis made by the paramedics, the confirmation at the hospital and the quick reaction of the surgical team, Berkowitz said everything went smoothly.
“We are proud of the quality of care we were able to deliver to Larry,” Berkowitz said.
The efficiency and swiftness helped keep Hellem calm during the ordeal.
“I wasn’t really scared,” Hellem said. “A lot of things were going through my mind, you know, ‘This could be the end.’ But I felt like I was in good hands.”
Since Labor Day, the Hellems have changed their lifestyle. Gone are the days of red meat and dairy, Hellem said. And they’re walking for exercise.
“I thought I was living a healthy life,” Hellem said. “Now I know I have to do more.”
It’s a change they’re making together. Before, Lupe’s high cholesterol meant that she often made two different meals. Now, the two now eat the same heart-healthy dishes.
“Nothing’s for sure, even thinking you have a healthy body,” Hellem said. “It’s very important to try to be as healthy as possible. Eat well. Stay in tune to your body.”
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