A lesson in living

 as told by Gene Roberts, PA, in the Gundersen Lutheran Heart Institute
as told by Gene Roberts, a Heart Services Physician Assistant

I thought this couldn’t be happening to me. After all I was only 52 years old. I thought I took pretty good care of myself. I didn’t want to be like my father who died from a heart attack at the age of 42. He had risk factors—he smoked and had high blood pressure. Me? I compete in triathlons.

I went out one morning for a run before work. I started experiencing shortness of breath and a feeling in my chest and arms I had never had before. I thought. I was in denial and foolishly finished my run. The next day, I told myself yesterday was a fluke and I went for a swim. Soon the pain returned. There was no denying it. I was scared.

A couple of days later, as I walked into work, I felt a sudden shortness of breath followed by a heavy chest pressure that extended down both arms. After a discussion with cardiologists, I was on my way to have a heart catheterization. Here I was getting prepped by the staff I worked with every day. It was humbling, yet reassuring.

I watched the screen and the first picture was a beautiful right coronary artery. The next picture was more revealing. A cardiologist who lives to place stents in blood vessels wanted to talk to a surgeon. The surgeon arrived and said I needed three bypasses. My reality changed...I had coronary artery disease. I might die. Waking up in the ICU, I realized I was going to make it. I was lucky to have my own ICU nurse, my wife, Rita, at home to help me. I’m now more aware of what support patients need when they go home. The days became long and I was frustrated by my limitations. I always saw myself as strong. Now I felt vulnerable and afraid.

The staff at cardiac rehab had a challenge: They knew I had lofty, sometimes unrealistic, goals for myself but they guided me back to reality. Slowly I gained back my strength and confidence. I returned to work where I care for patients who are members of an exclusive club of which I am now a member. As I reflect on this experience, I realize it has had a tremendous impact on my life professionally and personally.

I must never forget the human element of patient care and the gift of life we hold in our hands. Our patients are not just patients but people who are in need of care and support. Every one of us plays a very unique and important role in patient care and to one another.

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