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When Minutes Matter: Lifesaving Heart and Vascular Services, Close to Home Carmen Christiano from Chelmsford

Fit, trim and active, 63-year-old Carmen Christiano is one of the last people you'd expect to have a heart attack. But that's exactly what happened to him while biking on a sunny July day.

Carmen Christiano

"I was out for a 13.5-mile bike ride and started feeling some chest discomfort," he recalls. "When I got home, the discomfort became significant; I'd never felt such chest pain before. I asked my neighbors for a ride to the hospital, but they said I should call 911. Boy, I'm glad I did."

"My doctors said all of my biking helped me to recover quickly," says Carmen Christiano, seen here eclipsing 2,000 miles biked in 2011, a personal best.

Within minutes, the paramedics arrived at Carmen's home, carried him to the ambulance and hooked him up to an EKG (electrocardiogram) machine.

"They said, 'You're having a heart attack,'" Carmen relates. "They immediately began giving me all kinds of medications, and we headed to the hospital."

After a quick evaluation by the medical team in the Emergency Department at Lowell General Hospital, Carmen was rushed to the cardiac catheterization lab where he underwent an emergency angioplasty to open the blocked coronary artery that was causing his heart attack. Two stents — tiny metal "scaffolds" — were inserted to help keep the artery open and blood flowing to his heart.

"I was in the cath lab within 30 minutes of being at home," Carmen says. "About an hour later, I woke up in the ICU [intensive care unit] and felt 100 percent better. I wanted to go home, but the doctor said I had to stay for at least a couple of days."

"Carmen's experience was not unusual, however, many people don't act as quickly when they begin experiencing symptoms," recounts Dr. Kirk MacNaught, the heart and vascular specialist who performed the emergency angioplasty. "Acting upon the warning signs and speed of treatment is what led to him making a full recovery without permanent damage to his heart. In fact, his heart function resumed to 100 percent."

For someone experiencing a heart attack, getting help quickly is vital. The nationwide goal of hospitals is to have a patient begin treatment in less than 90 minutes. At Lowell General Hospital, with an experienced team of cardiologists and nurses available 24/7, the average time is less than 60 minutes — an excellent measure of quality and a factor for survival.

Carmen was discharged after two days in the hospital and participated in twice-weekly cardiac rehabilitation (medically supervised exercise to rebuild the heart's strength and endurance) classes at Lowell General for about three weeks after his discharge.

"That went very well because I had biked so much [before the heart attack]," Carmen says. "They had me hooked up to monitors while I exercised and it was great to see what my capability was before I started biking again on my own."

And that's exactly what Carmen did, resuming his cycling routine within two weeks of his angioplasty — clocking nearly 800 miles through mid-November. To reduce his risk of another cardiac event, he also started taking cholesterol-lowering medications and slightly changed his diet, although he says he wasn't eating that unhealthily before, nor did he smoke.

"My father had heart disease, however, so that was probably my primary risk factor along with too-high cholesterol," he notes.

Managing risks of heart disease like cholesterol, smoking, diabetes, and lack of exercise are important to lowering the chance of heart attack. "Unfortunately, age is a risk factor that we can't prevent, so while some people have no other known risk factors, anyone is at risk for a heart attack. That's why doing whatever we can to improve what we can — like lowering cholesterol, eating healthy and getting exercise — is really important," Dr. MacNaught explains.

"I'm just so glad they were able to perform this type of procedure right at Lowell General," Carmen adds. "If I hadn't gotten the help I needed within one hour the way I did, the results could have been dire."

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