While they may not actually beat together until the end of time, the hearts of married Mt. Solon couple John and Chris Shiflet will certainly beat longer now, thanks to cardiothoracic surgeries performed recently at Sentara RMH. Chris, 61, had double-bypass surgery in October 2016, and John, 84, had triple-bypass and valve replacement surgeries in January 2017.
John’s problems started in early 2016 when, after suffering a stroke, doctors became concerned about his heart.
“At the time, I was more worried about him than about myself,” says Chris. Being so concerned about her husband, who is more than 20 years her elder, she didn’t pay any attention to the angina pain she had been experiencing for the previous two years, and with greater frequency in the past year.
In July 2016, John had a pacemaker put in at another hospital, but by August he was no better.
“He was constantly out of breath and fatigued,” Chris remembers.
John’s doctor admitted him to the hospital to keep an eye on him and perform further testing, but these efforts yielded no further diagnosis.
Chris’ Unexpected Twist of Fate
With John’s ongoing medical situation so uncertain, Chris unfortunately suffered a cardiac episode of her own. On Oct. 21, 2016, she was returning from work when, about two minutes from home, she started feeling nauseous and faint. Unbeknownst to her, she was experiencing a serious heart attack.
“There was no pain, but everything started to go black,” she recalls.
Alarmed by her symptoms, Chris stopped at the first house she passed. Thankfully, that house belonged to a registered nurse, who happened to be home at the time.
By the time the rescue squad arrived, Chris was feeling fine. En route to the hospital, though, she had another heart attack. The second felt much the same as the first episode, so she still didn’t know how serious the situation was.
“I thought I was getting carsick,” she says.
The emergency technicians who were transporting Chris, however, knew what was happening, and got her safely to Sentara RMH. After spending the weekend at the hospital, on Monday Chris underwent a heart catheterization.
A heart or cardiac “cath” is carried out to determine whether there is any disease of the heart muscle, valves or coronary arteries. As part of the procedure, a coronary angiography is performed to measure pressure and blood flow in the heart. The technique involves injecting a contrast dye that shows up under X-rays. The images show the dye as it flows through the heart arteries, so doctors can see where the arteries are blocked.
“I thought I’d just get a stent and go home,” Chris says. “But there was 100 percent blockage of my ‘widow maker.’”
The widow maker is a popular name for the left anterior descending artery (LAD), which supplies blood to large areas of the heart. If the LAD is abruptly and completely blocked, it causes a massive heart attack that will likely be fatal.
From the minute a widow-maker heart attack hits, survival time ranges from minutes to several hours, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). Symptoms of initial onset may include nausea; shortness of breath; pain in the head, jaw, arms or chest; or numbness in fingers, along with irregular heartbeat. These symptoms progress quickly, so immediate medical attention is essential.
As in Chris’ case, early symptoms of these heart attacks are often mistaken for less-threatening problems, like food poisoning or flu, until they intensify. A widow maker doesn’t typically kill instantly, but it does induce cardiac arrest, which may occur within 10-20 minutes of loss of circulation, according to the AHA.
In addition to complete blockage of her LAD, Chris’ right coronary artery had 80 percent blockage.
The next thing she knew, she was having double-bypass surgery.
“Dr. McDonald is my hero,” Chris says of Jerome McDonald, MD, the Sentara RMH cardiothoracic surgeon who operated on her heart.
Sorting Out John’s Heart Issues
During Chris’ recovery, her daughter, a registered nurse, came from Kentucky to take care of the couple. After three to four weeks, Chris was feeling better, but John was getting worse.
“He couldn’t go from his chair to the bathroom without getting out of breath,” Chris says. Finally, John’s doctors at the other hospital ordered an echocardiogram.
Also called an echo, an echocardiogram is a type of ultrasound test that sends high-pitched sound waves through a device called a transducer. The device picks up echoes of the sound waves as they bounce off the different parts of the heart. These echoes are then converted into moving pictures of the heart that can be viewed on a video screen.
The results of John’s echo showed that he needed bypass and valve-replacement surgeries, and the doctors at the other hospital told John he would need to go elsewhere for those surgeries.
Since Chris had had such a good experience with her cardiac surgery at Sentara RMH, she called Dr. McDonald’s office to say that John was being sent over to be scheduled for surgery there—and that time was of the essence.
“He was admitted on Friday and had triple-bypass surgery, along with aortic valve replacement, on Monday,” Chris says.
Looking back on their experiences, Chris says she and John are very pleased with their outcomes.
“Sentara RMH is an awesome hospital,” Chris says. “The staff and the doctors—everyone is just great.”
Ignoring Signs of Trouble
Though Chris claims she had no previous heart problems before her heart attacks, she does admit to having experienced some angina pain.
“But I would get rid of it by ‘vagaling’ it down,” she says.
Chris learned to use vagal maneuvers to try to slow an episode of fast heart rate. Vagal maneuvers affect the vagus nerve, sometimes resulting in slowed conduction of electrical impulses through the atrioventricular node of the heart.
So when she would experience angina pain, she would hold her breath while pushing with her diaphragm. When she did this, the pain would stop.
“But as a result,” she says, “I didn’t take the angina warnings seriously, which almost cost me my life.”
Before their heart surgeries, neither Chris nor John went to their primary care physicians for wellness exams. At age 82, prior to his stroke, John wasn’t even taking any medications.
“The whole experience was life-changing,” Chris says. “But now we’re committed to getting our regular physicals.”
A New Lease on Life
On most days, John now meets a group of friends for breakfast at Armstrong’s in Verona. Then he comes home, gets on a tractor and works on his property.
A retired farmer, John sold all his cattle in May 2017 and lets out most of his pasture to a neighbor. The couple’s long driveway to their hilltop home always needs maintenance, however, as do other areas of their land.
Since recovering from his heart surgeries, he’s had a lot more energy.
“I feel like a new person,” John says.
“His color is so much better now,” Chris adds. “He had that death pallor, but now he’s pink like he’s supposed to be.”
As for Chris, she wears a Fitbit and usually logs many more than the 10,000 daily steps recommended for good health. Her job at James Madison University isn’t far from Newman Lake, so she often does a couple of laps around the lake in the morning.
“I didn’t realize I had a heart problem, but now I feel better than I have in 20 years,” she says.
Chris intends to retire soon, and the couple plans to be “snowbirds.” They have a camper with which they travel frequently to antique tractor shows. John collects tractors and antique trucks but doesn’t show them, due to the time, money, and effort involved. He is currently restoring a 1947 Dodge Cab-Over Truck.
The Shiflets also like to camp locally with friends and family.
“We call our camper our ‘home away from home,’” Chris says. “This year it’s more fun because we both feel better.”
She pats her husband’s arm.
“We have a second chance now,” she says. “We could have 10 more years together, and we want to make the very most of that time.”
The RMH Foundation Supports Heart Care in Our Community
Thanks to the generous support of local community members—including individuals, organizations and businesses—the RMH Foundation is able to take an active role in helping the hospital provide much-needed heart care.
In 2016 alone, the RMH Foundation provided $1,126,520 in direct support of heart and vascular services, including the following:
• a replacement cardiac catheterization lab
• a Volcano system, which enables caregivers to view and check pressures inside coronary arteries to help determine the severity of a blockage
• an Xper system for the hybrid operating room (OR), used for medical documentation and to monitor patients’ vital signs
• a new ultrasound for vascular patients
• new scales for heart-failure patients
• “scholarships” for patients needing cardiac rehabilitation phase III
All of that support is in addition to the $407,000 the Foundation raised to help fund the new hybrid OR, which was opened at the hospital in early 2017 and now provides heart and vascular surgeons with a state-of-the-art facility equipped with advanced imaging capabilities.
If you would like to support the RMH Foundation for heart and vascular care, go to SupportRMH.org and click on “Donate Now.” Or mail your donation to the RMH Foundation at 2010 Health Campus Drive, Harrisonburg, VA 22801. You can also call the RMH Foundation at 540-689-8545.
All money donated to the RMH Foundation stays at the local hospital to support equipment and program needs.