Immediate diagnosis in the field saves the life of a heart attack patient.

It was August, and flu season was months away. Yet Virginia Beach resident Jim Howley, out for a ride on his Harley-Davidson, felt flu-like symptoms – nausea, lightheadedness, fatigue. He pulled over and called a friend to come get him. 

“I went home and went to bed early. I woke up at 5 o’clock in the morning and felt like someone had parked a truck on my chest,” said the 54-year-old. “I couldn’t breathe.” 

He called 911 and a neighbor for help. Virginia Beach Emergency Medical Services (EMS) arrived quickly.

“The paramedics came in the house and gave me a nitroglycerin tablet, drew some blood, took off my shirt and put these sticky leads and wires all over my chest,” Jim recalled.  

12-Lead EKG in the field  

It was the early application of these “sticky leads and wires” that helped save Jim’s life. He had suffered an Acute Myocardial Infarction, a massive heart attack. 

Called a 12-lead EKG because a dozen electrodes attach to the body, enabling a view of the heart from 12 angles, the equipment immediately transmitted Jim’s condition to Sentara Virginia Beach General Hospital

While commonly used to diagnose a heart attack in emergency departments, the equipment is carried on board EMS ambulances. Having the equipment can mean the difference between life and death. Sentara Northern Virginia Medical Center also works with local EMS ambulances who use 12-lead EKGs on board.

Time is muscle, and the quicker a diagnosis is obtained and the artery is reopened, the greater the chance heart muscle can be saved. This technology helps restore blood to the heart an average of 20 minutes faster.  

The cardiac team found two of Jim’s arteries blocked – one 100 percent and another 70 percent. During the procedure to implant two stents, Jim experienced multiple life-threatening heart rhythms and needed to be shocked with paddles to bring him back.

The Widow Maker 

Physicians have told Jim he’s a lucky man. “They call my heart condition ‘the widow maker’ because very few people survive a heart attack like that,” says Jim. “At one point they told my daughter I probably was not going to live through it.” 

Jim is the primary caregiver for his grown daughter who lives with him and was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at birth.

To assist his recovery, he had a defibrillator with pacemaker capability implanted in his chest.

“I have a whole new outlook and a better idea of what I want to be,” said Jim, who said he eats healthier now, drinks mostly water and walks two miles every morning. “I do feel extremely fortunate and I do know that I’ve been given a second chance at life.” 


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