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Seconds count

Beth Nissen

Beth Nissen

Beth Nissen is enjoying family time after beating deadly heart condition

When Beth Nissen recalls the wee morning hours of Sept. 6, 2016, she considers all the circumstances that could have unfolded differently: if she hadn’t awakened, if she had tried to go back to sleep, if she had gone to another hospital, if she hadn’t been seen by cardiologist Gus Theodos, MD. If even one had changed, she might not be around today.

A severe headache awakened Beth that morning as she slept in her Waterloo home. Her husband, Brent, called 911 and she entered St. Anthony’s Emergency Department at 1:33 a.m. with a mild heart attack. During her triage, she suffered cardiac arrest twice.

The final arrest, in the cardiac catheterization lab, occurred seconds after Dr. Theodos and his staff opened her blocked blood vessel with a stent. The clotting that had closed off the blood vessel accelerated and blocked off the entire left system of her heart, including the left main coronary artery. Dr. Theodos knew Beth wouldn’t survive open-heart surgery.

“In that acute setting, she was too sick to go to bypass surgery,” Dr. Theodos recalled. “One of my old teachers used to tell me, turn the acute problem into a chronic problem: fix the issue in the present, and we can deal with it in the future.”

Because Beth’s arteries were blocked and she was suffering from potentially lethal heart rhythms and ventricular fibrillation, Dr. Theodos and his co-workers placed through Beth’s femoral artery an Impella pump. This tiny, temporary mechanized pump sits in the ventricle of the heart and pumps the blood to the rest of the body. Dr. Theodos had it implanted at 2:54 a.m., less than an hour and a half after she had arrived at the medical center. The blocked blood vessel was open by 2:59.

“The arrhythmias resulted because her arteries were occluded, and the heart was under great stress,” Dr. Theodos said. “Once we were able to provide some blood flow and open up those arteries, the arrhythmias went away. We continued to work on her, gave her multiple rounds of medications, and ultimately placed rounds of additional stents extending into both arteries, like a wishbone.”

Beth’s chance of not surviving this procedure was greater than 50 percent, Dr. Theodos estimated. Then 52, she spent several days in the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit.

I truly believe that I am still here because of the efforts and skill of everyone in the Emergency Department, Dr. Theodos and his team, and the group of doctors and nurses who cared for me in the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit,” Beth said. “I can’t say enough about everyone, especially Dr. Theodos. I know he went far beyond what he needed to do when he saved me that night. And he took the time to come out and talk to my family in terms they could understand so they really knew what was going on.”

Dr. Theodos removed the pump three days after surgery, after Beth’s heart function rebounded. Because it occupied much of Beth’s small femoral artery, the Impella pump impaired the blood flow to Beth’s leg and she still suffers from foot drop, or the inability to lift the foot due to nerve damage. Today, after therapy and recovery, Beth is back to her regular routine. Her heart function is back to normal, and she’s on good medical therapy, Dr. Theodos said.

Beth underwent an ablation procedure for an irregular heartbeat at the end of October, but otherwise she is staying busy. She takes special pride in helping to plan for the wedding of her daughter, Ally, in September. She notes that her entire family, including Brent, Ally and her son, Marty, were extremely supportive during her recovery.

“I’m very lucky, very blessed,” she said.