By Emily Williams-Robertshaw
Local business owner Bobby Yeager was given a new lease on life in August.
After putting off a scheduled visit with his cardiologist, Dr. Michael Wilensky of Ascension St. Vincent’s Health System, in March, he finally kept the appointment in August. What Wilensky found led to triple-bypass surgery with cardiothoracic surgeon Dr. Parvez Sultan.
“I have never experienced something so life altering,” Yeager said.
“If it wasn’t for the pandemic, I would go back and give everyone a hug and tell them how truly, truly thankful I am.”
According to Wilensky, a major struggle that has emerged during the pandemic has been a growing avoidance of appointments.
The Ascension family of hospitals and offices has made adjustments to ensure patients are safe while visiting for appointments and procedures. Yet, some patients are afraid to keep those necessary doctor visits.
“For some of our patients, we have seen that being afraid of COVID was more dangerous to them than coming in to address their heart situation,” Wilensky said.
Friends Nagged Him
Yeager admits he was quick to put off his annual appointment with Wilensky. It was the early days of lockdowns and he was far more worried about paying the rent and bills to sustain his businesses – Yeager’s Hair Studio and Spa in Hoover, and his food truck, G&R’s Smokehouse.
What led him to keep his appointment in August were friends and family.
Yeager has a history of heart disease.
“My grandfather died of a massive heart attack while routinely hoeing in the garden for a few days a week,” Yeager said.
“My uncle died of a heart attack due to stress. My father had a light stroke in his early 50s and died in August of 2014 from congestive heart failure at the age of 79.”
Yeager said he always has felt that he was in line for some form of heart complications, but it was never at the forefront of his mind.
Looking back, things could have been different for his grandfather, uncle and father if they had known the early signs and to take action, he said.
A few of Yeager’s close friends and clients encouraged him to keep his August appointment with Wilensky.
“One ophthalmologist client of mine, Dr. Greg Harrelson, walked in one day and visited with me. After he left, he came back and he brought an envelope and said, ‘It’s not much, but Bobby, I really want you to keep that appointment on Monday.’ It shocked me because I had known him for 30 years and it hit me like a brick.”
Signs Were There
Yeager was experiencing symptoms of heart complications, though he found other excuses for his struggles.
“I was having to stop several times while cutting grass and rest and drink a little water,” he said. “I felt like I had tension in my back and in my shoulders, but no pain at all.” He chalked it up to having to cut grass on a hill; it was just more laboring than on a flat lawn.
According to Wilensky, Yeager’s risk factors alone were cause enough to put him through a stress test on a treadmill.
When Yeager struggled with that, it was time to put him through a nuclear stress test, in which a radioactive dye is injected into a vein. That dye is then traced as it makes its way through blood vessels to the heart, where scans create images of the heart muscle.
The images of Yeager’s heart showed substantial coronary disease.
“A lot of people get told they are a ticking time bomb when they really aren’t, but this gentleman was a ticking time bomb,” Wilensky said.
Wilensky and his team outfitted Yeager with a temporary fix, a balloon pump to boost blood flow and stabilize him, and sent him to Sultan’s team for surgery.
Sultan said good communication between doctors, surgeons and hospital staff has always been important, but it has been essential in combating pandemic risks.
Sultan and Wilensky agree that Yeager recovered beautifully.
“At St. Vincent’s, we do that,” Sultan said. “I just did a surgery on one of Dr. Wilensky’s patients the other day – a woman who had a mild cardiac event – and I called him right after and he came over to check on her and see how she was recovering.”
The level of communication – from the nurses to the support staff and on to home care and physical therapists – didn’t go unnoticed by Yeager and his wife, and it dispelled fears they had about the surgical and recovery process
“I just get so teared up,” Yeager said. “To know that a doctor can give second chances to somebody. It’s a dedication that they have in doing that for everyone.”
Tune in to Your Body’s Warnings
From a medical professional’s perspective, communication between doctor and patient is just as important when it comes to your health. That communication begins with patients taking a close look at how they are truly feeling.
“We have to be in tune with our body,” Sultan said. “I’m a big believer in that.”
It starts with self-care, taking on those practices that are healthy for the body in the long run.
“Not smoking, diet and exercise are the three main things that are important to a cardiac surgeon that can keep you alive and maybe keep you alive longer,” Sultan said.
He admits that it is something that can be forgotten during a pandemic, when people are worried about other aspects of their health, kid’s schooling and working virtually. among many other struggles.
Self-care doesn’t have to be a huge adjustment. There are little things you can begin to do every day that help you. Sultan suggests small things such as cutting out sodas or going out for a walk. A daily walk can even become a family activity.
As your routine continues, listen to how your body changes. Is that walk becoming a little more breathless or are you having to stop every so often?
“He wasn’t admitting at first to the nurse that he was having very many symptoms,” Wilensky said. “When I started talking to him, it became clear that he was having symptoms that he was not sharing with our nurse.”
It often takes asking the right questions for Wilensky to get the information he’s looking for, because symptoms of heart disease can vary person-by-person and tend to be a bit vague in their manifestations.
It’s important to compare yourself to where you were six months ago, or even a year ago.
“Are you able to do the same activities?” Wilensky asked. “Are you more breathless when you do those activities? Are you having to stop the activity short? Does your chest get tight? Do you feel pressure, squeezing or burning? Any of those things would be suspicious.”
Wilensky likes to make notes of what his patients enjoy doing to stay active.
For example, one of his patients enjoyed square dancing. Wilensky wrote it down and the next time he saw the patient he asked if they were experiencing a range of symptoms. They said no. Then, he asked if they were still square dancing.
“He said, ‘No, I was embarrassed. I’d have to stop and sit down after one dance because I was short of breath,’” Wilensky said. “If I didn’t ask that one question about square dancing, all I would have gotten is ‘fine.’”
For Yeager, keeping that appointment and talking with Wilensky was the key to surviving.
“If you are having symptoms, you need to come to the hospital,” Sultan said. “Call your doctor and tell them what is happening. Don’t ignore it, because it is very dangerous if you ignore the signs and symptoms of something.”