Elsa Oliva, Cardiology

A STRONG WOMAN.
A WEAKENED HEART.
A BOLD PLAN.

How UW Medicine kept my heart beating.

I don't know how it is for most heart attack victims, but for me it wasn't nearly as stressful as I'd have expected. I guess part of it is my nature: I try to be pretty levelheaded about things. Don't get too excited or worked up.

But I have to give credit to the people helping me at Northwest Hospital & Medical Center, too. They were all so professional and such great communicators, it really made the experience...well, I can't say pleasant. But it could have been worse. A lot worse.

If I go back far enough, it all started with me getting tired more easily than usual. Where I noticed it most was on a long hill near our house. We've lived there since 1979, and I must have walked that hill a thousand times. But I started feeling winded all of a sudden. Like I just couldn't catch my breath.

I thought it was strange. But I let it go.

After a while, I began having this pain in my back, like a heat.

I mentioned it to my coworkers, saying I hope it's not my heart. They told me it was probably nothing. "Oh, don't worry about it," you know. I think they were just trying to be good friends. To put my mind at ease. But I was beginning to think there was something wrong.

Later in the week, my husband and I took an overnight trip to Canada with our daughter. We were looking forward to doing some shopping, but once there, I just couldn't manage it.

I was tired, not feeling well. And that pain. That heat in my back. I just told them, "You go on. I'm going to rest here in the hotel." So I took my low-dose aspirin and tried to catch a little nap.

Driving back the next day, I asked my daughter, "Can you massage my left arm? It's tingling."

Yes, I know. You don't need to say it. Fatigue, pain, left arm tingling

Hindsight is 20/20, you know. But I did feel like something was wrong. I said, "If not tonight, then early tomorrow I'm going to go to the hospital." I just made the plan.

Northwest Hospital was the first place I thought to go. We live only a few minutes away, and Dr. Taagen, my primary care physician, is there. I even set out the pants and shirt I'd wear before going to bed.

Late that night, about two in the morning, I had a pain I just couldn't ignore. Severe chest pain. So I got up, brushed my teeth, washed my face and got dressed. Then I woke my husband.

"Okay, let's go," I said.

On the way, I was making lists of bills that needed to be paid, things that needed to be done. I might be on my way to the hospital, but the world doesn't stop, you know?

But as soon as we walked into that Emergency Department, the moment I entered that safe place, all my energy left me. I just held out my insurance card and said, "I'm having chest pains." And that was all I could do.

They immediately took care of me, working to figure out what was wrong. It was when I said I was going to be sick that all doubt was removed.

I was having a heart attack right there. I learned later that it was a big one every artery blocked. And I don't think that it could have happened in a better place.

The cardiologist rushed in and was able to place stents in my heart to get me stabilized.

I was going to need a quadruple bypass, but the surgeon and my cardiologist discussed it and didn't like what they saw. My heart was too tired, they said. After the heart attack, I was simply too weak to endure open-heart surgery. I might not survive it.

So Dr. Weeks (UW Physician, Northwest Hospital & Medical Center) and Dr. Aldea (UW Physician, Northwest Hospital & Medical Center) came up with a plan to keep me stable for a month to let my heart recover. Then perform the surgery when I was stronger.

Long story short, it worked.

What really became clear is that I survived that first day because of where I was.

Dr. Taagen, my primary care physician, said that if I'd been anywhere else when I had the heart attack, I wouldn't be here anymore. That's how close it was.

But there were other reasons that make me believe I was in the right place. First, my doctors who cared enough to stop and consider my condition. Their thinking and collaboration are ultimately the reason I'm here today.

And every person, at every step, worked to put me at ease. From my doctors keeping me informed and involved, to the anesthesiologist telling me what to expect, to the nurse's assistant whose only mission in life seemed to be making me comfortable. Every decision felt easy. Every experience felt as positive as it could be.

I think my husband was more stressed than I was and I was the heart patient.

Today, I'm alive and thankful. I'm eating better and walking more. Dr. Taagen is in regular communication with Dr. Weeks, keeping him up to date on how I’m progressing. And the last time I saw Dr. Weeks, he said, "Everything's fine. See you in a year."

With luck, I'll never have to go through something like this again. But if I do, there's no question where I'm going.