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American Heart Month: Gundersen cardiologist and patient reunite after award-winning program saves his life

American Heart Month: Gundersen cardiologist and patient reunite after award-winning program saves his life
Monday, February 20, 2023

Grateful patient Don Iverson and interventional cardiologist Warangkana Chokesuwattanaskul, MD

Pro-athlete Arnold Palmer said golf is deceptively simple and endlessly complicated. The same could be said about the procedure that saved the life of 77-year-old Don Iverson. The La Crosse native and former professional golfer had his second heart attack on an early morning in September.  

“My heart stopped,” Don said.  

An ambulance rushed Don to Gundersen Health System in La Crosse. Along the way, paramedics with Gundersen Tri-State Ambulance performed CPR and used an AED.  

“I must have opened my eyes because the paramedic said, ‘I’m going to shock you and it’s going to hurt,’” Don said. “It hurt, but I was quite happy because it told me that I was alive.” 

When Don arrived at Gundersen, Warangkana Chokesuwattanaskul, MD, an interventional cardiologist and director of Gundersen’s catheterization laboratory, performed a coronary artery intervention. The procedure opened Don’s blocked coronary artery by placing a thin catheter into a blood vessel near his wrist. The catheter contains a tiny balloon that inflates to open the blocked artery. In Don’s case, the balloon angioplasties opened an old stent placed in his artery after his first heart attack in 1999.  

“These EMTs saved me, they got me started, but she fixed me,” Don said. 

Dr. Chokesuwattanaskul said Gundersen institutes a Priority One (P1) heart attack program to respond to acute heart attacks. This process allows her team to respond quickly. 

“Time is a muscle. The seconds, minutes, hours or days that the heart muscle lacks blood flow matter. Time is the most important factor on outcomes and survival,” Chokesuwattanaskul said. “When Priority One heart attack is activated, everything is going to be very quick.” 

 The goal of the P1 program is to open the coronary artery in Gundersen’s catheterization lab within 90 minutes of the patient arriving at Emergency Services. To those on the P1 team, this is known as the door-to-balloon time.  

Gundersen has received national recognition for its high-level care of heart attack patients. For the last three years, the American College of Cardiology (ACC) has recognized Gundersen with the National Cardiovascular Data Registry (NCDR) Chest Pain-MI Registry Performance Achievement Award. It honors Gundersen’s sustained, top-level performance in quality care and adherence to ACC and American Heart Association guidelines and recommendations. The registry allows Gundersen to use a robust quality improvement process, use data to improve treatment, and ultimately, make positive changes for the outcome for heart attack patients. 

“These awards are the token of our outstanding work with great collaborative teamwork,” Chokesuwattanskul said. “The program relies upon a high degree of collaboration between community hospitals, Gundersen Health System, Gundersen’s Heart Institute, EMS networks, our ambulance and air transportation.”  

According to the Sudden Cardiac Arrest Foundation, 90% of cardiac arrests that happen outside of the hospital are fatal. Dr. Chokesuwattanaskul said Don is very lucky.  

“It’s very impressive,” Chokesuwattanaskul said. “What are the chances that you can wake up and then go out and live your life and still survive? It’s not likely.”  

Don never had the chance to thank Dr. Chokesuwattanaskul in-person until recently. She visited him at Gundersen’s Healthy Living Center in the La Crosse Area Family YMCA. At the center, Don participates in Gundersen’s Movin’ and Improvin’ cardiac rehab program. Gundersen staff monitors Don’s heart as he uses exercise equipment. It serves as a preventive measure and can lead to early intervention for possible heart issues.  

When Dr. Chokesuwattanaskul walked into the room, Don immediately jumped up from his chair to give her a hug. 

“I need to have a hug!” Don gleefully said. “You saved my life, dear. You saved my life!” 

The pair quickly acted like old friends and were able to laugh and make jokes, something Don is grateful to still be able to do.  

“This is the first time I’ve seen her. I think she was afraid of me,” Don said with a laugh.  

Since his heart attack, Don has made a group of donations to the Gundersen Medical Foundation on behalf of those who helped him through the process, including Dr. Chokesuwattanaskul.  

“It’s the right thing to do,” Don said. “I didn’t give them a million bucks, but I wanted to say thank you.”  

Dr. Chokesuwattanaskul said stories like Don’s are part of why she practices medicine.  

“It’s rewarding. Especially, to see [Don] walking out when [he] died for seconds from [his] cardiac arrest,” she said.

As for Don, he’s not slowing down. Mere weeks after the heart attack, he was already back to playing golf. He’s looking forward to plenty more rounds on the course this spring.   

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