Erica's Story: Speaking Up For the Heart Care She Needed

Erica Barrett has held many roles in her life, but these days the most cherished is that of “Nana” to her two young grandchildren.

It's a blessing she can continue to enjoy for many years to come, thanks to the swift intervention of Premier Health's Emergency Medical Services (EMS) team when she suffered a heart attack last year. “My grandchildren need me just like my children used to need me,” Barrett says. “I can't thank everyone enough for saving my life.”

A healthy 52-year-old who walked at least 10 miles a day, Barrett seemed an unlikely candidate for heart disease. “I had just had my yearly physical, and they told me everything was great,” Barrett recalls.

But one morning last summer, she woke up feeling as if an elephant had parked on her chest. Her family physician diagnosed Barrett, a longtime smoker, with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and sent her home with an inhaler.

The elephant on her chest started to feel more like a tractor-trailer. Barrett couldn't walk from her car to her front door without growing short of breath. She started sleeping on her couch because the trek to her upstairs bedroom seemed like a Himalayan expedition.

An EKG and chest X-ray came back clean, and multiple medical appointments failed to find answers. Then, three weeks after the onset of symptoms, Barrett and her son were in the checkout line at Kroger when she nearly fainted. “Take me to the hospital,” she begged.

The emergency department at Miami Valley Hospital North swiftly diagnosed her with a heart attack and mobilized Miami Valley Hospital's heart catheterization lab, where she was taken by ambulance.

“Kudos to Erica that she activated the EMS system,” says attending cardiologist Robert Bulow, DO, who is physician service line leader for heart and vascular services for Premier Health. “Everyone acted extremely quickly, which resulted in minimal damage to her heart.”

The cath lab placed an emergency stent – the first of three – that restored the flow of blood to a major artery that had become completely blocked.

“I received excellent care,” Barrett says. “I can't say enough about everyone. I would like to thank the ambulance driver and the paramedics personally. They are an awesome group of people, and they were there when I needed them most.”

She's also grateful to Dr. Bulow for helping her children during a difficult time. “He took the time to explain to them what was happening and how my life was going to change,” she says.

Barrett is slowly regaining strength following seven months of outpatient cardiac rehabilitation at Miami Valley Hospital, including supervised exercise and lifestyle education. She also is taking medication for pericarditis an inflammation of the lining surrounding the heart.

Although Barrett can't yet take long walks or perform heavy chores, she feels newfound appreciation for the ordinary pleasures of life. “I have always enjoyed time with my children and grandchildren, but now it is more precious,” she says. “I feel even closer to them.”

And she has learned invaluable health lessons she would like to share with other women.

“I have found that so many women have experienced the same thing – that their doctors aren't listening,” she says. “We have to step up and become advocates for ourselves. Keep fighting to find out what is going on in your body, because nobody knows your body better than you do.”

Dr. Bulow echoes that advice, cautioning that some heart attack symptoms, particularly in women, go beyond the well-known warning signs such as chest pain and shortness of breath. Patients should also be on the lookout for arm heaviness and discomfort, nausea, fainting spells, chest pressure and, in older patients, confusion or change in mental status.  

“If you are having symptoms, it doesn't matter what testing you have had previously,” he says. “If you feel that something is wrong, you need to have resolution and find out what is causing the symptoms.”

Because of Barrett's persistence in finding answers, Dr. Bulow says, she is likely to regain most of her previous abilities.

“She has a very bright future,” he says.

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Every moment of your life depends on a strong, healthy heart. The Premier Health cardiology and vascular services team is here to help you, each beat of the way, with prevention, diagnostic, treatment, and rehabilitation services in our hospitals, outpatient centers, and medical offices across Southwest Ohio.