Too busy for a heart attack: a working woman’s epiphany

SusanHelping our community right here in Tucson get and stay healthy and keep on dancing is what Tucson Medical Center is all about. We’re showing off some of our fabulous community members in our latest commercials and you get to find out a little more about them here on our blog. Meet TMC dancer,  Susan Smith.

Susan’s signs

Susan Smith wasn’t feeling her usual energetic self.

She’d been increasingly fatigued in the previous few days, but like many busy women, was juggling so many things – including an upcoming speech – that it was easier to just brush off her symptoms.

As she launched into her speech, she began to have palpitations. Could it be anxiety? She began to run short of breath. Had she been holding her breath? She broke out in a cold sweat. Menopausal symptoms?

“There I was, standing in front of 40 people and feeling like I was going to faint, but refusing to fall down in front of all of them,” said Susan, who moved to Tucson 42 years ago. She completed her presentation, sat down and drank some water. The symptoms subsided.

The next day found her in a cardiologist’s office, hooked up to an EKG. She was in the midst of a heart attack and her doctor informed her she would be going to the Emergency Department.

“I don’t have time to go to the Emergency Department,” she remembered protesting. “I have to teach a class tomorrow at 8 a.m.!”

“I went right to TMC and it was an experience I will never forget,” she recalled. Her cardiologist had called ahead and within seconds she was on a gurney, blood was being drawn, tests were underway. “I didn’t know if I should be terrified or just glad I was in such good hands,” she said.

Dancing to recovery

Five weeks after her stent was placed, she was feeling well enough to dance in a TMC commercial, but still practicing resting. “That’s a tall order. I have to remind myself to do things more slowly and with more patience. Instead of putting 25 things on a to-do list, I might do five.”

Yes, women have heart attacks

“Women in particular have a lot on their plates and a lot of times they’re so busy taking care of their family, they don’t have the time to recognize the symptoms in their own body,” she said, noting women often have different symptoms than men do.

Like men women’s most common heart attack symptom is chest pain or discomfort. But women are somewhat more likely than men to experience other common symptoms, particularly shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting and back or jaw pain.

“The main thing I learned and am telling my friends: If something doesn’t feel right, don’t wait. Check it out. It’s not worth taking the chance.”

In need of a cardiologist? Find a doctor who specializes in the heart here.

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Gary Brauchla’s great race

Gary & Kathie Brauchla

Gary & Kathie Brauchla

Before he died, Gary Brauchla always had it in the back of his mind that he wanted to run a 5k.

It took his death to make it happen.

His remarkable journey from death to the completion of his first 3.1-mile run began sometime around 3 a.m in the early morning of Sept. 29, 2012, when the home builder went into cardiac arrest as he slept in his rural home about 90 miles from Tucson.

Earlier that evening, he had complained of pain in his right shoulder, but shrugged it off since he had had chili for dinner and thought he might be experiencing indigestion.

Later, his wife, Kathie, was awoken by a loud snort, which she assumed then was snoring. In retrospect, it was probably her husband’s last gasp. She nudged him. Nothing. Nudged him again. Nothing. Pushed harder a third time. No response. “Then it all clicked together what was going on,” she recalled. “I flipped the light on and he was not breathing.”

A former surgical technician for 15 years, Kathie immediately started CPR, called 911 and sustained the chest compressions until help arrived. The wait was excruciating. The sound of the diesel engines of emergency vehicles never sounded so good. A defibrillator restored his heart rhythm.

Brauchla was flown by helicopter to Tucson Medical Center, where doctors induced a coma, put in some coronary stents to reopen blocked arteries and cooled his body temperature through therapeutic hypothermia in order to reduce the brain’s oxygen requirements and reduce the chance of brain injury.

He would remain in a coma for 2.5 weeks, while loved ones wondered about the degree of brain damage he may have sustained.

He was already unspeakably fortunate. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 300,000 people in the U.S. experience a cardiac arrest outside of a hospital setting. More than 92 percent of them die. But he would be more fortunate still. He fully recovered.AP2A0615

“By doing everything TMC did, I am still here physically and mentally,” Brauchla said.

Once he was strong enough, his cardiologist wrote a prescription for him to attend the cardiac rehabilitation program at Tucson Medical Center to rebuild his strength and heart. Even though it is a 90-mile drive from his home in Pearce, Arizona, he attends three days a week.

He’s taking advantage of the program’s nutritional training, watching his diet and making conscious choices about the fuel he gives his body. And he appreciates that experienced staff is monitoring his heartbeat, making sure he is exercising safely but also challenging his heart, under proper supervision.

And on June 1, at 68 years old, he ran his 5k, at the TMC-sponsored Meet Me Downtown 5k Night Run/Walk.

He finished middle of the pack. But he figures that’s pretty good for a guy who faced down death.

“I was given a gift of life,” Brauchla said, adding he has become an advocate of making sure rural areas have access to automatic electronic defibrillators and promoting CPR. “My wife, God bless her, saved my life.”

Brauchla also volunteers at TMC’s cardiac ward four times a month, calming the fears of new patients about what the future holds. “I have a pretty good story I can tell,” he says. “Heart attacks are not necessarily a death knell. You can heal yourself, but you have to take steps to do it.”


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