Timing And Teamwork Save His Life
On a snowy day last December, Dennis Copertino died. For about 30 seconds.
After years of ignoring the tell-tale signs of heart disease—and hesitating to deal with chest pains that morning—he drove himself to the doorway of AAMC, where he collapsed. He credits the quick actions of an Anne Arundel Medical Center Emergency Department nurse, emergency angioplasty, and some “angels” with saving his life.
The unusual weather on December 5 closed schools and businesses across the region. Dennis, 49, Vice President, Sales, for A.V. Imports, Inc., drove his wife, Cathy, to work off the D.C. Beltway, then returned to Davidsonville to take Brady, his 22 year-old daughter to work in Annapolis. Upon his return, he took out the shovel and started the walkway.
Signs of Cardiac Arrest
In addition to the signs above, women have reported feelings of severe, intense indigestion that doesn’t go away after taking an antacid or burping; faintness or light-headedness; and some have reported a feeling of impending doom, that something terrible is happening, that death is imminent.
“I started feeling a tightness in my chest,” he said. “It was a familiar feeling I’d had it once before about 10 years ago. At that time, I rested and it went away, so I put the shovel down, went inside and started peeling off my clothes to cool off because I couldn’t stop sweating. The tightness didn’t go away. It was getting stronger. I didn’t want to believe I was having a heart attack, although I knew I’d quit taking my cholesterol medication, was smoking again and was feeling really tired all the time, especially after meals. I took off more clothes and lay on the bed. That made me more uncomfortable so I decided a shower might help. As I was heading for the shower, Brady called and asked me to pick her up because the weather was getting so bad. That was my first angel.”
Dennis redressed, got in the car and started the 10-mile drive to Annapolis. A few miles up Rt. 50, the tightness became worse, and he knew he needed to go to the hospital after he picked up his daughter. A mile or so later, he knew he needed to go immediately. “I pulled into the hospital and wasn’t sure where the Emergency entrance was, so I drove around a bit before I found it. I parked the car, locked it and got out. Then I realized I’d been driving with the windows down and snow was blowing in, so I got back in the car, rolled up the windows, got out again and made my way to the Emergency Department,” he said.
He found his way to the ambulance entrance. “I pushed through two double doors into an empty hallway. I could see another set of double doors and walked toward them. I tried to push them open but they seemed too heavy to open.”
Dennis pitched face forward through the door. He was in full cardiac arrest. As it happened, ED charge nurse Donna Gilbert, RN, had just gotten up from her desk and saw him fall through the swinging doors. She said, “At first I thought he was an ambulance driver who had slipped, but when I saw the car keys fall from his hand and realized he wasn’t moving, I knew something was wrong.”
Donna ran to him, calling for help. She turned him over. No pulse. No breath. Steve Moore, ED tech, had heard Donna’s call and came running. She told him to bring the defibrillator. Within seconds, Donna and Steve gave Dennis’ heart a shock and his heart responded. He began to breathe again.
Dennis says the next thing he remembered was Donna’s face. “You were in cardiac arrest. Do you have chest pain?” she asked. He said, “I did, but I don’t now.”
He thinks of Donna as his second angel that day and credits her and Steve with saving his life.
By now a team of about four or five ED personnel, led by ER physician David Moordian, M.D., put Dennis on a stretcher and moved into the trauma room. Blood was pouring from his face from the fall and the wound was beginning to swell. The ED team immediately performed an EKG. Dennis was diagnosed with having a heart attack and the CPORT team was activated. The CPORT team is a group of medical professionals on-call 24 hours a day to perform emergency angioplasty on heart attack victims. He then underwent cardiac catheterization to pinpoint the location of the blockage. Within 30 minutes from the time Donna Gilbert saw him fall to the floor, Dennis was undergoing angioplasty.
Angioplasty involves passing a thin wire into a coronary artery through the site of the blockage causing the heart attack. Once the wire is in place, a small balloon is inflated at the site. The balloon attempts to compress the blockage and restore adequate blood flow to the heart. The balloon is deflated and removed, and a stent is usually placed in the area that was blocked.
While Dennis underwent the procedure, his wife, Cathy, arrived. She was told that because Dennis had an anomaly in his right coronary artery, it was difficult to get the wire to the site of blockage. But the cardiologist who performed the procedure, Rob Lager, M.D., was successful, and 90 minutes later Dennis was moved to critical care where the rest of his family was able to visit with him.
Four days later Dennis was home—a changed man. “Before December 5, I thought I could be my own doctor. Not only had I quit taking my cholesterol medication, I had gone back to smoking; I wasn’t exercising and I wasn’t watching what I ate. Now it’s no red meat. In its place are salads, chicken and fish, cereal and fruit. I’m Italian and I can’t completely give up pasta but I’m cutting back serving sizes. And I’m exercising. For 31 years I’ve done nothing. Now I’m working out at cardiopulmonary rehab and I’ve become a mall walker. I’ve quit smoking, and I’m taking my cholesterol medication faithfully.”
Dennis’ cardiologist, Mitchell Schwartz, M.D., said, “Dennis is doing extremely well. In one month, he’s lost weight, he’s exercising, he quit smoking and he’s taking his medication. People with high risk factors like Dennis are going to develop coronary disease if they don’t take care of themselves. Dennis was extremely lucky. In his case there was minimal damage to the heart. It’s just unfortunate that there has to be a life threatening event like this to make people see the light.”
Dennis agrees with Dr. Schwartz and is now motivated to stay healthy. Dennis said, “I’ve never been a pill taker, but right now I feel great, so I’m reconciled with my need to take medication for the rest of my life. This really has had an impact on my life. I think more than anything, my outlook on life has changed. I’m learning to slow down and take it easy. Even my co-workers are noticing it. One of them said to me last week, ‘You used to say good morning to us every day, but now when you say it, I think you mean it. I like you this way!’”
“And I think others are looking at me and thinking, ‘This could have been me.’ I’m just lucky that so many angels were watching over me that day and I have a second chance.”