Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thanksgiving holds new meaning for patient after heart surgery


Listen to the audio version of Richard Kezima's story.

Many Americans gather with family and friends on Thanksgiving to express all they are thankful for that year. That tradition will have new meaning for one man as he recalls those who helped him on Thanksgiving Day in 2007 – the day he came back to life.

After a big, family Thanksgiving dinner, Richard Kezima, 61, of Lexington, Mass., headed to a nearby park for a game a touch football. Kezima, his sons and some friends were enjoying this Thanksgiving tradition when tragedy struck.

"I was having fun, feeling great, everything was terrific," says Kezima. "Then, the next thing I know I'm being wheeled into Mass General."

Kezima says he doesn't remember much of what happened, but friends who were there say he just collapsed on the field. One of his teammates - a state trooper - immediately began CPR. That man's wife, who sells portable defibrillators, ran to her car to get one of the devices, which she then used to revive Kezima while they waited for an ambulance.

The ambulance took Kezima to a local hospital, but it was quickly decided he needed immediate surgery. He was sent to Massachusetts General Hospital where Heart Center surgeons performed a five-vessel bypass procedure that night.

Bruce Rosengard, MD, a cardiac surgeon with the MGH Heart Center who treated Kezima, says he was extremely lucky after suffering sudden cardiac death, which is caused by an abrupt loss of heart function.

"A quick response is extremely important in these situations since you have only four to six minutes before someone in cardiac arrest begins to lose brain function due to a lack of blood and oxygen," said Rosengard. "Richard Kezima may have died if his friends had not been able to help him."

The holiday heart attack

According to the American Heart Association, about 310,000 people a year die of coronary heart disease without being hospitalized or admitted to an emergency room. Most of these are sudden deaths caused by cardiac arrest. Unfortunately, heart attacks and cardiac arrest are not uncommon during the festive holiday season.

"The data suggests that there is a noticeable uptick in heart attack deaths during the holiday season, especially around Christmas and New Year's," says Randall Zusman, MD, director of the hypertension program at the MGH Heart Center. "The cause of this increase is not certain, but it could be related to excessive physical activity, overeating (especially the ingestion of increased amounts of salt), excessive alcohol intake, or possibly the psychological stresses that inevitably accompany the holiday season."

Some tips for staying heart healthy during the holidays include:

  • Be aware of all the holiday treats you are eating. Heavy and high-fat meals can stress the heart as they are digested, increasing blood pressure and heart rate. Large meals can result in blood flow being diverted from the heart to the gastrointestinal tract which can result in an inadequate supply of blood to the heart muscle. Too much alcohol can also increase heart rate.
  • Remember to bring and take your medications when you are away from home.
  • Be careful when exerting yourself in the cold. Cold weather can restrict blood vessels and extra exertion can lead to a heart attack. Snow shoveling, in particularly, can increase the amount of work done by the heart. Snow shoveling should be avoided by patients with a history of heart disease and/or high blood pressure.
  • Relax. Stress can be hurtful for the heart, so try to take a break from the holiday hustle and bustle.

"It is most important to not ignore the symptoms – chest pain, difficulty breathing, palpitations, and nausea. These are all signs of a heart attack, and getting the appropriate care quickly is the best thing you can do. Don't hesitate to be in contact with your doctor if you have any concerns that the symptoms you are experiencing are heart related." says Zusman.

A Happy Holiday

Thanks to his friend's swift action and his general good health, Kezima's recovery went well and he was able to resume many of his normal activities within five months of the surgery, including shoveling his neighbor's driveways.

"Last winter I was shoveling snow again and lifting weights, but I was cautious about overdoing it," he said. "I have a lot of energy and was afraid I wouldn't know when to stop, but Dr. Rosengard said during my last visit that having so much energy was great news.

"I couldn't be more thankful to hear this," he says.

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