Doctors shows people a picture of EKG printouts of a heart attack.

On Valentine’s Day, health professionals at Doctors give advice on heart care

on February 15, 2013

On Valentine’s Day, health professionals at Doctor’s Medical Center focused on the most important organ of the day—the heart—by presenting several free sessions to an audience on how to better care for their own.

Doctors Medical Center is the only hospital in Western Contra Costa County—which has a population of close to 200,000 people—that receives patients who are suffering from a kind of acute heart attack called a STEMI (or ST-elevation myocardial infarction). It occurs when a clot blocks the flow of blood in an artery that goes to the heart muscle.

In 2011 and 2012, Doctors Medical Center saw close to 60 patients each year who were suffering this kind of heart attack.

Dr. Laurel Hodgson, an emergency room physician at Doctors, sees whoever comes through the ER doors, but knows the process of a STEMI heart attack well.  She’s earned the affectionate nickname “poop magnet” from her co-workers for her uncanny ability to get the toughest cases.

After explaining how the hospital treats STEMI heart attacks, she said her main goal was to stress the importance of seeking help immediately if someone thinks they’re suffering from a heart attack.  “Time is heart muscle,” Hodgson told a group of about 30 people, sitting in a room surrounded by glossy red and pink heart-shaped balloons.  After suffering a STEMI heart attack, she said, “Every minute that ticks by, you’re losing heart muscle.”

Hodgson said there’s a 90-minute timeframe during which emergency staff can get the artery open and implement one of the treatments available. After those vital 90 minutes, some treatments are no longer effective. Taking nitroglycerin—a common treatment to help open arteries—is only helpful when the artery isn’t already completely blocked, she said. Comparing the heart to a house and nitroglycerin to a fire extinguisher, Hodgson said, nitroglycerin won’t do much good if the house has already burned to the ground.

Hodgson said after an emergency crew arrives and performs an EKG, a test that monitors the electrical waves of the heart, they can usually determine what kind of heart attack the person is experiencing before transporting them to the nearest hospital. But she said if there’s any concern that it could be STEMI, they’ll send them to Doctors Medical Center.

The hospital became a STEMI Receiving Center in 2009. That year, Contra Costa County STEMI System averaged 87 minutes from the time a person called 911 to the time a treatment was administered to them, which is slightly under the mandated national response time of 90 minutes.

Since then, Hodgson told the audience, the hospital was able to speed up their treatment process by having staffers work in parallel, and not sequentially.  Procedures like catheterization and shaving the body for surgery prep could be done in tandem, she said.

One patient, when interviewed, described the experience of being treated by the team by saying, “It felt like a whole swarm of bees came in, stung me, and then swarmed off,” Hodgson said.

Director of Wellness Services and nutritionist Tracy Taylor ended Thursday’s event with a cooking lesson that showed the audience how to make dishes low in sodium, which is often to blame for high blood pressure.

She said since she started working at Doctors Medical Center in 1997, she’s began to reach out to community organizations and places of worship to spread information on preventative treatment through nutrition. “That gives us a chance to reach out to the community that may not be able to access us or know what services may be here or perhaps are waiting until they’re really sick to seek help,” Taylor said.

Financial challenges are a reason why many in the West County don’t get preventative treatment for threatening diseases, she said.

Hodgson said what makes her job difficult is when patients ignore heart attack symptoms, like chest pain and shortness of breath. “If you have a sense of doom, listen to it,” she told the audience.

But the heart isn’t always warnings and bad news, Hodgson reminded the crowd. It beats nearly three billion times in the average lifetime.  “It’s miraculous, if you think about it,” Hodgson said.

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