On an early morning last June, Francine Heiss was home caring for her sick dogs and tending to chores. Suddenly, she was immobilized by searing chest and back pain. Francine, a 57-year-old Wayne resident, quickly called her sister, who in turn immediately called 911 and rushed the mile to Francine’s house.
Prior to the ambulance arriving, a call was made to Francine’s partner, Candace Trace, a nurse at Main Line Health, who was in Atlanta on business.
“Although I felt helpless, I did not feel hopeless,” Candace recalls. “Knowing the exceptional care our patients receive each and every day gave me confidence that Francine was in capable hands.”
When paramedics arrived minutes later, Francine, a hospital nursing supervisor, thought she knew what was wrong. She quickly told the paramedics that she suspected she had an aortic dissection— a tear in the inner wall of the aorta that very often is fatal—and was taken to Lankenau Medical Center.
At Lankenau, Emergency Department physician David Patchefsky, MD, quickly ordered a CT scan. The test confirmed an aortic dissection in the chest. Doctors informed Francine’s family that her condition was grave and that they’d do what they could to save her life. Within minutes, the cardiac operating room was being prepped and cardiac surgeons Roberto Rodriguez, MD, and Scott Goldman, MD, were teaming up to perform complex aortic replacement surgery.
“At the Lankenau Heart Institute, we offer many options for patients who require aortic valve repair or replacement surgery,” says Dr. Rodriguez. “Aortic valve surgery can be performed using traditional open heart surgery or minimally invasive approaches, which include endovascular repair and transcatheter aortic valve replacement (TAVR). We also offer repairs or replacements of major aortic disease such as aneurysms and dissections. Traditional as well as endovascular approaches are available.”
During Francine’s six-hour procedure, the surgeons removed the damaged part of her aorta, replaced it with a synthetic graft, and repaired her aortic valve. Recovery following this surgery can be delayed because of potential complications. However, with the extraordinary care that she received in the Intensive Care and Telemetry units, Francine made steady progress toward discharge. She returned home after just five days in the hospital.
“I knew my condition would be catastrophic if I didn’t get into the operating room quickly so the dissection could be treated,” Francine says. “The immediate care I received at Lankenau made the difference between life and death.”
When Every Minute Matters
Complicated cardiac conditions such as aortic dissections require treatment from a multidisciplinary team of highly experienced clinicians working together to beat the clock. Dr. Goldman says the type of aortic dissection Francine had is fatal in 90 percent of patients not treated within hours. Francine’s caregivers mobilized so quickly that she was in surgery within 38 minutes of arriving at the hospital.
“We have a state-of-the-art facility and a highly trained team that practices evidence-based medicine,” Dr. Goldman says. “This enables us to diagnose and treat complex cardiovascular conditions as quickly as possible to give patients the best chance for a good outcome.”
Just as important, Francine called for help right away. Since aortic disease runs in her family, she knows she’s at higher risk for a cardiac event and pays close attention to what her body tells her.
“As a former emergency room nurse, I’ve seen women minimize their health problems and delay seeking medical attention,” Francine says. “They have so many responsibilities in caring for their families that they put their own health on the back burner. It is so important for people, especially women, to listen to their body.”
Caring and Compassion
From the moment she arrived in the Emergency Department, Francine was impressed by the entire team’s skills and professionalism. But it was their empathy and compassion that touched her heart. Carolyn Wilson, RN, stayed at her side until Francine went for surgery.
“I knew Francine was aware of the gravity of her situation,” Wilson recalls. “She asked for a priest and for me to tell her family how much she loved them. As we ran down the hall toward the operating room, she told me to hurry because she truly felt she wouldn’t make it. I held her hand and reassured her we’d get there in time. The collaborative efforts of each and every team member across multiple specialties and departments contributed to saving Francine’s life that day.”
Getting Her Life Back
Francine returned to Lankenau for outpatient cardiac rehabilitation a month after leaving the hospital. The program includes exercise, nutrition counseling, education, and support for patients who have had a heart attack, open heart surgery, angioplasty, or stents.
“A heart condition is a life-altering event for most people,” says Dianne Baker, RN-BC, manager of the Outpatient Cardiac Rehabilitation Service at Lankenau. “I believe it’s our multidisciplinary approach that helps patients learn to cope and thrive in their recovery.”
Francine is back working full-time and looks forward to kayaking, biking, and hiking again. Right now she’s concentrating on “appreciating every minute of every day,” she says. “I want to get the message out that it’s important to know your medical history and act on your gut instincts when you think something’s wrong,” she adds. “You may be saving your own life.”