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Patient Stories

Difference Between Life and Death
By Healthy Life 2008 Fall

Dave Fitzgerald, 49, had just gotten off work and pulled into the drive-thru lane at his bank when he suddenly felt nauseated and experienced a tightness in his chest—he was having a heart attack. He slumped over and fell unconscious. “At the same time, my foot hit the accelerator. Luckily I had put the car in park so it didn’t move,” he said.

John McKeon, in the next car over heard the roar of the engine, and immediately sprang into action. McKeon, an off-duty Lynn firefighter and paramedic, called the Lynn Fire dispatcher to send an ambulance, dragged Fitzgerald to the ground and started CPR. A police officer who heard the radio call arrived and helped with the CPR until the Lynn Fire ambulance arrived minutes later. McKeon and the other paramedics used an automatic external defibrillator to shock and restart Fitzgerald’s heart. Once a pulse was restored, they put him on monitors, inserted intravenous lines and gave him medications to stabilize his heart for the short ride to NSMC Salem Hospital.

Within eight minutes of his heart attack, Fitzgerald was being wheeled into the emergency room, where David Roberts, M.D., chief of cardiology, and his team were waiting for him. They rushed him to the cardiac catheterization lab and discovered he had four blocked arteries that were preventing blood flow to and from his heart.

Within 44 minutes from Fitzgerald’s arrival at the hospital, Dr. Roberts inserted a thin tube into his heart and inflated a small balloon to open up the blocked artery that was causing the heart attack. While angioplasty had addressed the immediate danger, Fitzgerald still needed the other blocked arteries opened. Three days later, NSMC and Massachusetts General Hospital cardiac surgeon Ann Toran, M.D., performed a quadruple bypass to restore proper blood flow in his heart.

After his release from the hospital, Fitzgerald enrolled in NSMC’s Cardiac Rehabilitation Program, where he fine-tuned his diet, built up his strength and endurance through supervised walking and weight training, and learned better ways to deal with stress. He’s still a bit stunned that he had a heart attack. “I had borderline high blood pressure, but I ate salads for lunch and jogged up to 11 miles a day. I thought I was in good shape,” he said.

Once he was home, he had an emotional reunion with McKeon, who was honored by the City of Lynn for saving the police officer. For McKeon, the rescue had a special significance. His own father had died of a heart attack when McKeon was only 18, and the young man had been unable to help him. “That’s when I decided to become a paramedic, with the hope of saving some other family the pain I experienced,” he said.

“We were so lucky that John saw Dave and started CPR so quickly,” said Tracie Fitzgerald, Dave’s wife. “And on top of that, we were fortunate to be so close to NSMC Salem Hospital, where they could perform the angioplasty and cardiac surgery right there. I’ve known people having a heart attack who’ve gone to other hospitals on the North Shore and they had to be transferred to Boston hospitals for the surgeries. All that wasted time in transport allows more damage to the heart.”

Five and a half months later, Fitzgerald returned to work patrolling Lynn’s Ward 1 neighborhood. “It was great to get back to work,” he said. He started jogging again in June, is eating better and has used some stress management techniques. “I’m so thankful to John, the paramedics, and everyone in the NSMC Heart Center. I’ll do whatever I have to do to stay healthy, because I want to be around for my wife and daughters.”