Heart attack a timely wake-up call

A hospital visit for ‘heartburn’ saved man’s life, and alerted him to deadly condition

This is one of a series of stories on the Victoria Hospitals Foundation’s campaign called You Are Vital.

It all started with a strange sensation in his chest.

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Heartburn.

Or so Matt Oliver thought.

He was 44 at the time. Fit. Watched what he ate. Owned a business — Bike Tours of Victoria — that allowed him to stay active.

No way it was anything too serious.

He went to work as usual that day, Dec. 23, 2017, but when the heartburn began getting worse by the end of the day, his colleagues suggested that he dial 811 and speak to a registered nurse.

Oliver waited until he got home and then called. He remembers the woman on the other end of the line was diligent, running down a checklist of his symptoms and making him promise to call an ambulance when he got off the phone.

“Of course, I was like: ‘Oh yeah, no problem,’ ” he says. “In my head, I was thinking: ‘For heartburn?’ I was totally fine. I was squeezing my hands, and it just felt like something was off.”

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Heart Health nurse educator Judy Nevett shows a patient-monitoring system at the launch of the Victoria Hospitals Foundation's You Are Vital campaign at the Royal Jubilee Hospital on Oct. 25. - DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

If it was a heart attack, he thought, he would be experiencing crushing pain in his arm, wouldn’t he?

Instead of calling an ambulance, he packed up a few things for what he assumed would be a long wait in the emergency department at Victoria General Hospital.

“You know? Near Christmas. For heartburn. In the emergency room. Probably not top of the list.”

He drove himself to the hospital without any problems, but everything changed as soon as he stepped into the waiting room.

“The world started getting really small,” he says.

The receptionist asked for his health card, and the last thing Oliver remembers is fumbling for it in his wallet and then handing it over to her.

The next thing he knew, he was waking up in a bed across town at Royal Jubilee Hospital surrounded by medical staff, telling him that he had had a heart attack.

Dr. Chris Franco remembers the case well. He was the cardiologist on call at Royal Jubilee that night and oversaw Oliver’s care in the Coronary Care Unit before and after a procedure in which a stent was inserted in one of his heart arteries.

“A young guy whose life you’re trying to save on Christmas Eve is an important memorable experience for everybody involved — not just me, but Matthew or his family or the nurses or everybody that’s been involved in his care,” Franco said.

“It’s an important time of the year where all of us that were in the hospital at that time were spending time away from our loved ones trying to protect someone else’s loved ones. That’s the memorable part of it for me.”

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At Royal Jubilee Hospital, a procedure in the heart health unit uses a critical diagnostic piece of equipment called a heart catheterization laboratory C-arm. - ADRIAN LAM, TIMES COLONIST

The key to saving Oliver’s life, Franco said, was the swift response and transfer to Royal Jubilee, where patient-monitoring systems allow medical teams to track every heartbeat every second.

It’s one of the reasons that Franco and Oliver are speaking out in support of the Victoria Hospitals Foundation’s You Are Vital campaign to raise $3.5 million for more than 100 pieces of equipment — including the monitors that helped save Oliver’s life.

Medical conditions are getting more complicated as the population ages, Franco said, and it’s crucial that medical teams have the best available tools to do their jobs.

Oliver knows that first hand. He says his parents flew out from Ontario after he suffered his heart attack and they bumped into a nurse on the plane who assured them their son was in good hands if he was at Royal Jubilee, the referral centre for cardiac care on Vancouver Island.

“They were relieved even before they landed that I was at Jubilee,” he said.

Indeed, from the moment he called 811 until today, Oliver says he has received first-rate care that allowed him to resume his life, albeit with a slightly different outlook. He tries to worry less now, he says, in an effort to reduce the stress that he suspects played a role in his heart attack.

“[I’m] living more day-to-day now, and being more grateful for what I have,” he said.

This Christmas, having spent the previous one in hospital, he made a point of connecting with family and friends. His father’s 80th birthday is coming up in a few weeks and he’s planning to fly to Ontario to take part in the celebrations.

It’s a second chance at life that he owes, in part, to the medical teams at Vic General and Royal Jubilee, but also to those who have donated money to equip the hospitals with the latest technology, he said.

“No donation is too small,” Oliver said. “Everything counts. You never know. It’s not just giving money. You’re actually saving people’s lives.

“I’m a testament to that. If that money hadn’t been donated before, I might not be here today.”

You can find more information on the You Are Vital campaign or make a donation at victoriahf.ca/vital.

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At Royal Jubilee Hospital, a procedure in the heart health unit uses a critical diagnostic piece of equipment called a heart catheterization laboratory C-arm. A new arm was installed two weeks ago — and now it must be paid for. - ADRIAN LAM, TIMES COLONIST

lkines@timescolonist.com

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