Priority One: Heart attack care in a heartbeat

When a heart attack patient is brought to Gundersen’s Cardiac Catheterization Lab through the Priority One Program, the cardiology team moves rapidly to get the patient’s blocked arteries open as quickly as possible in order to minimize damage to the heart muscle.

What started out as a typical day for Jean Kuehn of Winona, Minn., turned into a day she would never forget.

"Shortly after I'd gone to bed, I woke up feeling funny and went into the bathroom," Jean remembers. "I yelled for my husband and told him there was something wrong with me. He had me lay down and dialed 911 right away."

The 62-year-old was having a heart attack. Ambulance crews took her to the Winona Community Memorial Hospital Emergency Room (ER). There, doctors immediately began preparing to transfer Jean to La Crosse on Gundersen's MedLink AIR helicopter through the Priority One Heart Attack Program.

Gundersen's Priority One Heart Attack Program aims to remove time barriers that occasionally exist in getting heart attack patients' blocked arteries open as quickly as possible. "Time is crucial during a heart attack. The faster we can get the blocked artery open, the less damage is done to the heart muscle," explains Gundersen cardiologist and Priority One medical director Kevin Jaeger, MD. "The Priority One Program sets predetermined procedures in motion when patients like Jean arrive in a partnered emergency department."

Here's how it works. After evaluating the patient, the local hospital's emergency department declares a Priority One heart attack. They make one call to Gundersen, which activates a team in the Heart Institute to prepare for the patient and, at the same time, arranges for emergency transportation with MedLink AIR or ambulance crews.


Jean Kuehn of Winona knows she’s lucky to be alive to enjoy the simple things in life. When she suffered a heart attack, Gundersen’s Priority One Heart Attack Program allowed physicians at the Winona Community Memorial Hospital to rapidly transfer her to Gundersen. Once in La Crosse, Gundersen cardiologists quickly opened her blocked artery, giving her another chance at life.
"When the patient arrives at Gundersen, he or she is immediately taken to the Cardiac Catheterization Lab where a highly specialized cardiology team is standing by to provide care," Jaeger says. "In order to minimize damage to their heart muscle, the goal is to deliver care in the Cardiac Catheterization Lab in 90 minutes or less from the time the patient first arrived in the local hospital's ER."

According to Priority One program coordinator and Gundersen Cardiac Catheterization Lab nurse Lori Milliren, RN, BSN, the Priority One Program partnerships help provide the best care for patients. "Smaller community hospitals provide excellent emergency care for their heart attack patients. However, they often don't have the resources available to do coronary artery balloon angioplasty or stenting, which are used to open a blocked artery and keep it open," she says. "Priority One allows these hospitals to get heart attack patients to Gundersen quickly so our cardiologists can perform these interventions."

Winona Community Memorial Hospital was the first of many hospitals in the Tri-state Region to partner with Gundersen in the Priority One Program. Jean is grateful the program was available when she needed it. Doctors in Winona wasted no time in transferring her to La Crosse. She was taken to the Cardiac Catheterization Lab where Gundersen cardiologist A. Daniel Harbin, MD, placed a stent in her blocked artery. After the procedure, she spent time recovering in Gundersen's Coronary Care Unit.

Jean says she owes her life to the Priority One program. "Without good doctors in Winona and La Crosse and the MedLink AIR helicopter, I don't think I would be here today," she says. "I thank all of them for having the Priority One Program available and giving me another chance at life."
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