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Heart Care Close to Home


After nearly 30 years as a state trooper, Jimmy Stahl was pretty sure he knew what a heart attack looked like.

“When we're called,” he said, “usually your heart has stopped.”

So it was a bit of a shock when he learned that he’d just had a heart attack himself.

It was a sunny day last May, though the temperature felt more like summertime. Jimmy was outside, getting some yardwork done, when he started to feel dizzy and nauseated.

“The heat really got to me,” he said, “so I stepped back inside and laid on the floor in our laundry room, where it’s cool.”

His wife, Julie, held some cold washcloths to the back of his neck. A registered nurse, she recognized the signs of heat exhaustion and wanted to help him cool down right away.

“He gets out there and just works and works,” she said. “He’d been out there for hours already, and it was mid-afternoon, so the hottest part of the day.”

After a cold shower, Jimmy didn’t feel much better and went to lie down for a while. Less than an hour later, he told Julie he was having chest pains.

“It was a different hurt than I’d ever felt,” he said. “It felt like my chest was crushing where I couldn’t get air. And my left arm hurt, all the way down to my fingertips.”

That was all Julie needed to hear. Fully in nurse mode now, she handed him four baby aspirins, grabbed her keys and called the nearest hospital—Central Harnett Hospital, where she works as a nursing supervisor.

“You’re supposed to call 9-1-1,” she said. “But he hates ambulances, and I knew he wouldn’t want to get in one. So I called the hospital. One of my dear friends was working and I said, ‘Hey, Jimmy's having chest pain and I'm really concerned. We’re on our way.’”

Ten minutes later, they arrived at the hospital and the staff got right to work on Jimmy. His EKG looked fine, and so did his blood pressure and heart rate. After a dose of nitroglycerin, he felt a lot better.

“Then they told me, ‘We’re going to do a heart stress test in the morning,’” he said. “So I said, OK, I guess we’ll come back in the morning for that. And they said, ‘Oh no, you’re not going home tonight.’”

Although Jimmy’s other tests looked fine, cardiologist Varun Kumar, MD, said his cardiac enzymes were telling another story.

“The enzymes were trending up,” Julie said. “And at that point they said, ‘We’re not even going to do the stress test, we’re going straight for the cardiac cath.’”

Jimmy was rushed to the cardiac catheterization lab, where cardiologist Amol Bahekar, MD, placed a stent to repair a significant obstruction in one of Jimmy’s arteries.

“It was a 90 percent blockage,” Jimmy said. “That’s what caused me to go down.”

The next morning, he woke up in a hospital bed, feeling unusually tired despite a full night’s sleep. He saw Dr. Kumar and asked if it was normal to feel this exhausted.

“He looked at me and said, ‘Well, you did just have a heart attack.’”

Until that moment, Jimmy hadn’t realized that his discomfort the day before had been an actual heart attack. It’s a revelation he has shared with coworkers.

“I tell them a heart attack doesn’t always mean you’ve hit the floor and you’re out,” he said. “It just means something isn’t right and your heart isn’t working correctly. It might just be a little pain, a little nausea, but you should get it checked out before it gets worse. I was lucky I had no muscle damage, because I got to the hospital before it started to damage my heart.”

A few weeks after his heart attack, Jimmy was back in the catheter lab to repair two additional, less severe blockages. He said he’s been surprised by how much energy he has now.

“I have noticed some things that used to wear me out,” he said. “And I’m going, wait a minute. This isn’t making me breathe hard like it used to. So there were things I was chalking up to age for a long time, and I guess it was really my heart.”

Julie said the experience made her grateful that Central Harnett has the capacity to perform cardiac catheterizations, a development that came along in 2019 to keep local patients from having to be transferred elsewhere.

“It's nice because for so long our community did not have that option,” she said. “To be able to do that here and keep patients close to home is wonderful.”

Jimmy is grateful too, not only for his healthier heart but for the compassionate care he received that day. He beams when talking about the nurses who kept him calm and comfortable.

“He calls them his heroes,” Julie said. “I really couldn't ask for better coworkers, or better friends.”

This summer, cardiac care in Harnett County will take another step forward, as Cape Fear Valley continues its promise to ensure easier access to quality healthcare. The health system will open a new clinic, Harnett Health Heart and Vascular Specialists at 805-B Tilghman Drive in Dunn.

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