the doctor walked into the room at Community Hospital South, holding his hand in a way to form a zero.
Dave Rohl looked up from his bed with a questioning glance and asked what that meant. Dr. Nitesh Gadeela replied that despite suffering a massive heart attack, Rohl has suffered zero permanent damage to his heart.
That seemed impossible considering what zero had meant the day before for Rohl. A clot had completely blocked the main coronary artery leading to his heart, leaving him with no blood flow to large parts organ. Doctors refer to this type of blockage as a “widowmaker.”
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“There was nothing going to the heart,” Rohl said. “The fact that they were able to open that up without anything more damaging to my heart is pretty incredible.”
Six months after suffering his heart attack, Rohl said his heart and health are in great shape. The 50-year-old southside Indianapolis resident is back to exercising, taking medication to control his cholesterol and help thin his blood.
What saved his life was a combination of the quick, decisive care that he received at Community, combined with listening to his own body. When he felt pain in his chest, he didn’t hesitate; he knew he had to have it looked at.
That lesson is one he hopes others learn.
“If someone takes their knuckle and buries in your chest, you’re going to get that checked out. It’s not like you’ll go about your day, even if I didn’t think it was a heart attack,” he said. “But I guess there are lots of people who ignore that. They told me I did everything right.”
All of the sudden, Rohl felt like someone was pushing down with all of their strength in the middle of his chest.
Like he had done most Fridays before heading to work as principal at Glenns Valley Elementary School in Perry Township, he went to the gym.
He had always enjoyed exercise, going back to his days as a high school football player. In the weeks leading up to Glenns Valley’s spring break, the staff was taking part in a “biggest loser” competition, so he was going to the gym even more.
Rohl went through an intense session on the elliptical, some light jogging and lifted some weights. Feeling good about the day, he headed home to shower and get dressed.
“Right when I was starting to get dressed, something started not feeling right,” he said. “It literally was pressure in the middle of my chest — nothing in my arms, my head didn’t hurt, I wasn’t out of breath. I know where my heart is, and the pressure wasn’t near it.”
The pain grew stronger and stronger. Concerned but not panicked, Rohl knew that he had to go to the doctor. His suspicion was that it was acid reflux, indigestion or something relatively minor causing the pain. He never considered that it was a heart attack.
“I figured they’d give me some antacids and tell me to go on with my day,” he said.
His wife, Brenda, drove him to Community South. Arriving at the emergency department, he described what was happening and was taken by wheelchair to a lab for examination. Technicians took an electrocardiogram, and within seconds, Rohl was told he was having a heart attack.
The next 20 minutes were a blur of activity.
“People were coming out of everywhere. People were hooking me up to IVs, they gave me nitroglycerine and baby aspirin, and kept asking me to rate my pain, which wasn’t getting any better. It was getting worse and worse,” he said.
He was taken to Community’s catheterization lab, where his heart was scanned and analyzed while medical officials would probe for the exact cause of the heart attack. Nurses and technicians grew more frantic as they prepared him for the procedure.
Gadeela, an interventional cardiologist for Community South, handled the care of Rohl. Analyzing the data on the screen, he muttered that it was a record-breaker.
“He had 100 percent blockage to the widowmaker, with a significant amount of clot.”
Rohl overheard that.
“I thought, if this is for the worst heart you’ve ever seen, let’s not break that record today,” he said.
The whole situation seemed very surreal, and Rohl still didn’t realize how grave the situation was. But he had his own way of knowing that something was very, very wrong with him.
“I knew I was in trouble because I couldn’t think of a joke,” he said. “I’ve had a couple of surgeries before, and I’m the kind of guy who will joke around with people, but this time, I couldn’t think of a joke.”
Gadeela explained that they were going to put in a stent to open up his artery and get blood flowing to the heart. The medical team used a tool called an AngioJet, which sliced the clot and sucked it back, so that none of the remnants were left in the heart.
Rohl was given anesthesia, felt a pinch in his leg, and the next thing he remembered, his pain had melted away.
Throughout the catheterization, doctors asked Rohl to rate his pain. The ache in his chest was still searing, and he rated it as high as it would go.
“Then all the sudden, it was nothing. And I heard (Gadeela) say, ‘We got it,’” he said.
From the time that Rohl felt his first chest pain to the stent being put in place took about one hour. About 25 minutes of that had been spent at the hospital.
The quickness in dealing with the problem is what spared Rohl’s heart, Gadeela said.
“There’s a saying in cardiology: Time is muscle,” he said. “The faster you open, the less myocardial damage there is, and that determines how long they’ll live. The sooner we open, the less the damage. The less damage, the longer they live, and there will be little chance of heart failure. They have the same life span of any other patient of the same age.”
Rohl had never suffered any heart problems earlier in his life. Just weeks before the heart attack, he had gone through a wellness check, which while he admits his cholesterol and blood pressure could be better, it was far from a red flag.
But his father had died at age 57 of a massive heart attack while working on his farm. So it was unsurprising that Rohl was beset by poor genetics.
Though they can’t know the cause of the heart attack for sure, it is assumed that in his narrow arteries, Rohl’s workout broke a clot loose to form a complete blockage.
Part of what saved Rohl was his quick response, Gadeela said.
“If you delay an hour, two hours, three hours — the more you delay, the more damage that occurs,” he said. “After eight to 12 hours, there’s no point in even taking anyone to the cath lab.”
Though Rohl felt perfectly normal, he was required to stay in the hospital for monitoring and recovery. Medical staff examined the wound in his leg where the catheter had gone in, and watched for any sign that his heart was still weakened.
While recovering, his minister, Doug Lofton at Southport Christian Church, came to pray with him. Lofton prayed that angels would come look over Rohl, to guide him through the ordeal.
That request seemed to have been answered. Not one but two of the nurses caring for him during recovery were named Angel.
After being released from the hospital, Rohl went through six weeks of cardiac rehabilitation. Three days a week, he met with therapists who monitored him while he did exercise — walking at first, then increasing his activity.
The process allowed Rohl to know that as he tried to do more and worked his heart harder, medical personnel were watching to make sure no problems occurred.
“At first I didn’t want to do that. But once you get home and you’re starting to think about it happening again, that gave me a really good peace of mind,” he said. “They were watching me, seeing what my heart was doing.”
Rohl knows he was blessed to escape the heart attack unscathed. Without the entirety of the staff at Community South, and following his own gut feeling, he’s not sure what would have happened.
Even more so, he now knows how important preventative care and regular checkups are, even if you don’t feel any symptoms, he said.
“You have to check that stuff out. That’s what I keep saying to people, because I didn’t,” he said. “People rely on you: You’ve got wives, families, parents. You’ve got to serve them by getting things checked out and making sure you’re as healthy as you can be.”
Signs of a heart attack:
- Chest discomfort. Most heart attacks involve discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes, or that goes away and comes back. It can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain.
- Discomfort in other areas of the upper body. Symptoms can include pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.
- Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort.
- Other signs may include breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.
Don’t wait to get help if you experience any of these heart attack warning signs. Although some heart attacks are sudden and intense, most start slowly, with mild pain or discomfort. Pay attention to your body — and call 911.
Act fast: Learn the signs, but even if you’re not sure it’s a heart attack, have it checked out. Minutes matter. Fast action can save lives. Don’t wait.
Call 911: Calling 911 is almost always the fastest way to get lifesaving treatment. Emergency medical technicians can begin treatment when they arrive — up to an hour sooner than if someone gets to the hospital by car.
— Information from the American Heart Association
Don’t smoke, and avoid second-hand smoke.
Treat high blood pressure if you have it.
Eat foods that are low in saturated fat, trans fat, sodium and added sugars.
Be physically active.
Reach and maintain a healthy weight.
Control your blood sugar if you have diabetes.
Get regular medical check-ups.
Take medicine as prescribed.
— Information from the American Heart Association