Linville local Ken Schuler, 61, is no stranger to hospitals.
In April 2000, after hearing a father plea for his daughter’s life on television, Schuler donated 60 percent of his liver in the world’s first stranger-to-stranger live liver donation. The ground-breaking medical procedure attracted worldwide attention, and ultimately saved the life of a then 39-year-old woman dying of cirrhosis.
Before the donation, Schuler underwent intensive medical testing, none of which indicated he was at risk for heart disease.
“I was healthy as a horse,” he remarked.
Since his surgery, Schuler has regularly attended annual physicals; always receiving a clean bill of health.
Yet last December, as he was dining over squirrel gravy and biscuits with his wife, Schuler developed an ache in his jaw, a pain he likened to the sensation of chewing taffy for too long.
“I [also] got kind of sweaty and a little bit nauseated,” he recalled. “I excused myself from the table and laid down on the couch.”
After resting with an ice pack on his jaw for a few hours, he drifted off to sleep. The next morning, Schuler awoke feeling better, albeit a little short of breath and fatigued. Explaining that his symptoms “didn’t seem like that big of a deal,” the full-time pencil artist carried on with his day.
Later in the week, Schuler — who was planning on having a rotor cuff surgery in January — visited his doctor for a pre-operative appointment. While checking his vitals, Schuler says his physician noticed his pulse was “real low.” Concerned, the doctor ordered an EKG and blood work, and instructed Schuler to rest at home.
On New Year’s morning, he received a surprising call from the doctor’s office: The enzyme level in his blood tests indicated he had had a heart attack.
“ ‘Happy New Year,’ that’s what I thought,” Schuler said sarcastically, adding “That’s not the first thing you want to hear someone tell you on New Year’s Day.”
He and his wife rushed to Sentara Rockingham Memorial Hospital, where he remembers being swarmed by medical professionals.
“It reminded me of a swirl of yellow jackets,” he recalled. “They were all over me in a second; hooking me up to IVs and monitors.”
After confirming he had experienced a heart attack, and determining the cause was a blockage in his right main coronary artery, Schuler underwent a metal stent placement to open up the blood flow.
Dr. David McLaughlin, an interventional cardiologist at SRMH, says coronary stent placements are common procedures, with an estimated 700,000-800,000 performed annually in the United States. According to McLaughlin, the procedure is performed by inserting a catheter in the radial artery in the wrist, and then threading a wire passed the coronary blockage.
“Over the wire, we advance the stent which has a balloon inside,” McLaughlin explained. “We place that where the blockage is and we inflate the balloon and that expands the stent and opens up the artery.”
Schuler was awake for the procedure, and recalls it as being “a little uncomfortable,” though relatively painless.
“They numb the site and they give you enough medication, so you don’t care what they do,” he said. “You’re in la-la-land.”
For Schuler, the most frightening part of the procedure was what came after; to prevent his blood from clotting, he needed to take a blood thinner.
“One of the best [blood thinners] is aspirin, but I’ve been allergic to aspirin for 25 years,” he added.
As a precautionary measure, Schuler was placed in the hospital’s critical care unit before receiving his first dose. To help desensitize his body, the doctors first administered only a minute amount of aspirin, then gradually increased the dose each hour. This technique proved to be successful, as Schuler did not experience an allergic reaction.
Schuler, who’s since made a full recovery, is making a few lifestyle adjustments to prevent future problems.
Though he’s never struggled with obesity, he says he’s making an effort to eat healthier.
According to McLaughlin, a Mediterranean diet — meaning one that’s rich in fish, vegetables, fruits and whole grains — is a good option for those concerned with heart health.
Schuler says he’s also warning others to be pay close attention to their symptoms anytime they feel ill.
“When in doubt, have it checked out, because you never know,” he advised.
McLaughlin says it is common for those suffering from a heart attack to feel chest pain or discomfort, but points out that there are other symptoms, including sweating, nauseas, arm or jaw pain, shortness of breath and fatigue.
McLaughlin advises anyone who suspects they may be having a heart attack to take an aspirin and seek medical assistance immediately.
“Preferably, [they should] not drive themselves to the emergency room,” he adds. “You can get into trouble on the way and that can be a problem.”
Although Schuler plans to be more attentive to his health, he insists he isn’t the type to dwell on it round the clock.
“I don’t sit around and worry about what’s going to happen tomorrow,” he said.
“Heck, I could walk across the street and get hit by a car; you just never know.”
Contact Katie King at 574-6271 or firstname.lastname@example.org.