When Henry felt a little indigestion and chest discomfort, he decided to pay a visit to the emergency room just to be sure. He didn't think there was anything seriously wrong. However, just as soon as he sat down to give the details at the registration counter, the intake clerk noted that his eyes were rolling upward and then he stopped breathing.
"Next thing, he was stretched out on the floor on the floor, pale and sweaty," the clerk told me later. A code blue (for cardiac arrest) was called and the emergency team responded immediately. Henry's heart had stopped and for all practical purposes, he was dead at that moment.
After almost 15 minutes of resuscitation efforts including chest compressions, multiple shocks to the heart and intravenous infusions of cardiac drugs, his heart started beating again. The color returned to his face and he began breathing on his own. Henry had suffered a heart attack and died, albeit for a short period, but was successfully revived. Subsequent cardiac catheterization showed two major blocks in his coronary arteries and with a couple of stents, he eventually went home happy and grateful.
Would you say this was a miracle? For Henry, who had just turned 55, it certainly was.
Is this an everyday phenomenon in our hospitals? Most certainly, yes. Our paramedics working in the field and doctors and nurses working in the emergency rooms and intensive care units regularly perform such death-defying acts. All without any fanfare or media attention. If Henry didn't get the right treatment at the right time, he could have been another statistic like the 300,000 or so sudden cardiac deaths that occur annually in the United States.
I have witnessed other miracles:
• A 72-year-old lady developed severe bleeding from the stomach and her hemoglobin dropped to alarmingly low levels. With several units of blood transfusions and cauterization of the bleeding artery, she recovered.
• A 28-year-old substance abuser stopped breathing after a drug overdose and was brought to the hospital by his buddies. He spent several days in the ICU on a ventilator teetering between life and death, but eventually got well.
• A 76-year-old man had a stroke and received the new clot-buster treatment that unclogged the blocked artery in his brain and averted a debilitating paralysis of his body.
• A 10-year-old boy suffered incessant seizures and went into respiratory arrest. He was stabilized and his nervous brain activity was controlled with proper intervention, which pulled him through in the nick of time.
The line between life and death is being shifted slowly but surely in our favor. Today, new methods of diagnosis using modern technology and new treatment regimes with high-tech interventions save more lives than ever before. For example, by inducing hypothermia (chilling the body) you can cheat death, buying valuable time to treat the seriously ill patients in cardiac arrest or with cerebral bleeding.
Certainly, we live in a dangerous and turbulent world, punctuated with uncertainties. If you walk along the floors of our hospitals, you will witness diverse images of joy and sorrow, conflicts and dramas, fear and hope; yes, hope. The doctors, nurses and ancillary staff make hope the defining characteristic of their mission.
Often we celebrate the recovery of a patient felled by a near-fatal illness. At other times, we cry with the relatives of a patient whom we couldn't save from the jaws of death. Both bring comfort to those who need it badly.
We put our time, energy and resources to work for others and try to make a difference in their lives. For many of us, it is a personal crusade to watch over your health problems, and we want to do our best. In the media, you hear news of medical errors, neglect in the nursing homes, etc., more frequently than medical miracles. Yes, those problems need to be addressed and rectified. But we should also appreciate the good work of the medical and paramedical personnel who bring hope to millions all over the world.
Molecular biologists, geneticists and physician scientists are working on how to predict the nature and time of occurrence of future illnesses by studying the genomic map of a person. In other words, your doctor can tell you if there is a heart attack or cancer in your future and, if so, how to prevent it by taking proactive measures.
Sounds like science fiction? No, it is the exciting future of medicine. While we take advantage of these latest therapies, let us give credit to all those who bring these life-saving therapies to your doorstep.
Dr. M.P. Ravindra Nathan is a Brooksville cardiologist and director of the Hernando Heart Clinic.