When Rick Barnes left his job at Mayfield Dairies at 7 a.m. on Saturday, April 12, 2003, and headed home to Lula, he had a normal day planned – sleep a little, help out his brother-in-law, take his wife out for a nice dinner. Little did he know that less than 24 hours later, he would have a massive heart attack and go on to survive a night that, according to his doctors, he should not have lived through.
Only 42 years old, Rick left work that morning feeling fine. Around noon, he went to help his brother-in-law move some furniture, and it was then that he began to notice something was wrong.
“While I was working, both of my arms began to feel really tired and heavy,” says Rick. “I would rest and feel better, but as soon as I started working again, the feeling would return.”
Rick headed home around 4 p.m. – it was his 13th wedding anniversary, and he and his wife, Shann, had planned to go out to dinner in Gainesville; however, once he arrived home, he began having chest pains that would come and go. He mentioned the pains to Shann.
“I suggested we stay home, but he said he did not feel that bad,” says Shann. “Rick had pericarditis (an inflammation of the sac around the heart) about three years earlier, and the symptoms were similar, so he thought he was experiencing the same thing.”
Throughout dinner, Rick’s chest and arm pain became progressively worse. After dinner, Shann talked him into going to the emergency room (ER) at Northeast Georgia Medical Center (NGMC).
In the ER, Rick had an EKG (electrocardiogram) which came back normal; however, he continued to have pain in his chest, arm and jaw, so Rick’s doctors ordered another EKG, which came back abnormal. Shann says she will never forget what happened next.
“Rick was sitting up because it felt better than lying down,” says Shann. “Then, all of a sudden, Rick’s eyes fixed, and he fell over.”
Shann screamed for help, and emergency physician Dr. Michael Hollifield ran into the room. Nurses escorted Shann out while other staff rushed in to begin the effort to resuscitate Rick.
“Rick was in cardiac arrest,” says Dr. Hollifield. “Basically, his heart was in ventricular fibrillation, or v-fib, which means it was not beating nor circulating blood to the body. We began CPR, including defibrillation, or ‘shocking’ the heart; however, each time we would get his heart into a normal rhythm, he would slip back into v-fib.”
Dr. Hollifield and the ER staff continued to work to bring Rick’s heart back to life, shocking his heart an exceptional number of times – 19 in all – before it was able to maintain a normal rhythm.
“Rick kept showing a sign of hope that he might return,” says Dr. Hollifield. “When you see signs of hope, you don’t want to give up. I would have had to really convince myself there was absolutely nothing else I could have done for him before I would have given up.”
Shortly after Rick’s resuscitation efforts began, Dr. Jeffrey Marshall answered the page for a cardiologist. After assessing the situation, Dr. Marsahll called the staff in the cardiac catheterization laboratory (“cath lab”) and requested a balloon pump be brought to the ER.
“A balloon pump takes the pressure off the heart by helping it pump and circulate the blood during a heart attack,” says Dr. Marshall. “In Rick’s case, he was so weak from the efforts to save his life that he needed a balloon pump to stabilize him so he could be transported to the cath lab, where we could find out what was causing the heart attack.”
Dr. Marshall inserted the catheter for the balloon pump into a small incision in Rick’s leg, the first time the procedure had ever been done outside of the cath lab at NGMC. Then, Dr. Marshall went to talk to Shann.
“Dr. Marshall said Rick needed to go to the cath lab immediately and that if he didn’t, he would die but even if he did go, he might die on the table because his heart was so unstable,” says Shann. “He said by taking him to the cath lab, Rick at least had a chance, so I signed the papers for them to transport him.”
Rick left the ER on life support. When Dr. Marshall began the intervention, he discovered Rick’s heart attack had been caused by a 100 percent blockage in one of his main arteries. He performed angioplasty on that artery and placed a stent in it. Rick had a less severe blockage in another artery, but Dr. Marshall made the decision not do anything at the time because Rick was in such a weakened state. The next concern to face was whether Rick would wake up, and if he did, whether he would have any brain damage since during the extended period of time the ER staff worked to save Rick’s life, his brain was receiving little or no oxygen.
“The doctors told me there was an 80 percent chance Rick would wake up with severe brain damage,” says Shann. “I had basically watched my husband die, and now I had to wait to see whether he would return to me as I knew him.”
The next thing Rick remembers is waking up, looking at the clock, realizing it was 2 a.m. and wondering what happened to the last four hours. Then, he asked about his dog. Once he began to talk, Dr. Marshall knew Rick had no permanent brain damage from what had happened.
“Most people would not have survived an episode like this,” says Dr. Marshall. “While I credit the quick and efficient work by the ER physician and staff and the seamless efforts of the cath lab staff, I also believe that God’s hand was in this.”
Dr. Hollifield shares Dr. Marshall’s sentiments.
“God, not us, has the power over life and death,” says Dr. Hollifield. “Even though as physicians we are able to access and use the latest medical technology and do our very best to help people, the ultimate decision is His.”
“I remember when Dr. Marshall came to get me to take me back to see Rick, he said ‘God must have a plan for your husband because, by all rights, he should not be here,’” says Shann. “Good medicine is good medicine, but ultimately it all comes down to God.”
Rick was released from the hospital that Wednesday, though the lingering burn marks on his chest and back and his extremely bloodshot eyes served as visible reminders of the ordeal he had experienced. The following week, Rick began having chest pain again and returned to NGMC, where Dr. Marshall performed another angioplasty on the remaining blockage.
A year later, Rick continues to adhere to the lifestyle changes he began after his experience, such as eating healthier and exercising more.
“I know God had his hands on everything that happened to me,” says Rick. “He gave me a second chance, and I am going to take advantage of it.”
One of the hardest things for Rick was returning to his regular routine following his experience. “Everyone knew what had happened, and no one really knew what to say to me,” says Rick. But Rick learned to handle any awkward moments with humor.
“Lots of people have asked me if I saw ‘the light,’” says Rick. “I tell them, ‘No, but I did see Elvis!’” While sudden, dramatic heart attacks do occur as often depicted on television, but more often, a heart attack begins with mild pain or pressure in the chest, arm or jaw. Knowing these and other symptoms of a heart attack could save your life.