Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Medical Emergencies Change Lives

A couple of weeks ago my father suffered a stroke. Fortunately it was a relatively small stroke caused by a small blood clot temporarily lodging in a portion of the brain. My dad has recovered from most of the symptoms we first noticed, thanks in part to the fact that my mother and my wife insisted that my dad get immediate treatment.

However, during my dad’s treatment it was discovered that he has had at least one heart attack during the past five years. We believe that he has had three or four during the past five or six months. Each time dad has complained of symptoms that my mom thought could indicate a heart attack (see Heart Attack Warning Signs), my dad has adamantly refused to get it checked out, which is common. In hindsight, mom should have simply called 9-1-1 and forced dad to have it checked out the first time she noticed a symptom.

When a heart attack occurs, quick action is imperative to preventing unnecessary damage to the heart muscle. Even five minutes can make a difference in longevity and future quality of life. Nowadays, they can bust up clots and open up arteries to improve blood supply to the heart. Since my dad did not get timely treatment for his heart attacks, blood supply was stopped or reduced to some portions of his heart, causing some of the heart tissue to essentially die.

Thankfully, dad’s surviving heart tissue is functioning reasonably well. However, the impaired heart has been pumping out an insufficient amount of blood with each beat; a condition known as Congestive Heart Failure. A normal heart ejects at least 55% of the blood from the chamber with each beat. If the ejection fraction falls to 35% or less, it is considered Congestive Heart Failure because essential organs cannot get enough blood to thrive.

When this happens, excess fluid backs up waiting to be pumped through the heart. Since the heart cannot handle the fluid backlog, the body disperses the fluid according to gravity. If you are upright, the fluid pools in your legs and feet, causing swelling. If you are reclining, the fluid pools in your lower back and around your lungs, causing shortness of breath and difficulty sleeping. Secondary lung problems (bronchitis, pneumonia) can result.

Also, when the ejection fraction is low, blood remains in the heart longer than it should. In my dad’s case, this allowed a blood clot to form inside of his heart, which is a very dangerous condition. The clot could easily travel to the brain and cause a major stroke or death. They treat these things with clot busters and blood thinners. Eventually the clot should either dissolve or adhere to the heart wall.

It is a good idea to be well versed on stroke symptoms. It is important to get treatment within three hours of the first appearance of the symptoms, because within that window they have the option of using drugs that can attack the clot causing the stroke. After that window expires, they won’t treat with these drugs due to decreased effectiveness and increased risk of problematic side effects. As with heart attack symptoms, if stroke symptoms appear, call 9-1-1 immediately. Don’t wait. Don’t be embarrassed. Don’t think it’s a waste of time.

With heart problems, the earlier treatment is sought, the better the available options are, and the better the prognosis will be. However, even if treatment has not been sought in a timely manner, it is important to get treatment as soon as possible. Within my lifetime, heart problems have gone from being an almost immediate death sentence to being highly treatable.

While my dad is doing very well, his current condition means that family members will have to pick up a lot of slack and deal with things that dad has been used to handling. That means that family members will have less time for other things (i.e. blogging). But that’s the way life goes.


Bradley Ross said...

Wow. Sorry to hear about your dad. Good luck to you and your family. We'll be praying for you.

Alienated Wannabe said...

Yes, I too am sorry to hear about your father. I also will mention you and your family in my prayers.

Scott Hinrichs said...

Thank you. Dad is going through ups and downs right now. It's a difficult situation, but by the grace of God, we are doing well.