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Wed, Mar 22, 2017 at 05:00 AM

Woman survives blocked ‘widower maker’ to live a healthier life

Patricia Williams learned the hard way that time is critical when a heart attack hits.

Her terrified husband begged doctors at Marshall South to put her on a helicopter and send her to another hospital after she had a heart attack at home. There was no time, they warned. In fact, Williams had to be resuscitated repeatedly just to make it from her home in Geraldine to Marshall South.

“I don’t think anyone could have done better,” David Williams says now, looking back. “They saved her life. Overall it was excellent care.”

Williams credits two doctors for saving his wife that Saturday just over a year ago. Dr. Andrew Vann was on duty in the emergency room. The entire ER staff was consumed with keeping Williams alive, requiring off-duty nurses to be called in. One was reached at Wal-Mart with her children. She was told to bring them with her and someone would babysit.

Dr. Vann called Interventional Cardiologist Dr. Raymond Fernandez, telling him it was life or death for a heart attack patient. He made the drive from his home near Noccalula Falls in Gadsden to the Boaz hospital as fast as he could – in less than 25 minutes.

While Dr. Fernandez was rushing to the hospital, so was the highly-trained staff of the catheterization or cath lab, an examination room with diagnostic imaging equipment used to visualize the arteries and chambers of the heart.

When Dr. Fernandez and his team got a look at Williams’ heart, they saw 100 percent blockage in the coronary artery frequently called a “widow maker” - or in Mrs. Williams’ case the ‘widower maker’ - because it is so often fatal. He put a stent in the artery and saved her life. She spent a full week in the hospital.

“I couldn’t ask for anything better,” she says of the care she received. “It wasn’t my time but it was my place. This hospital was my place to be that day. I told Dr. Fernandez that God brought him to me. God gave him the knowledge to take care of me.”

Before she went home her heart was pumping at 32 percent. Six weeks later, after Dr. Fernandez started Williams on cardiac medications, it had improved to 52 percent. He also encouraged her to make many lifestyle changes.

“He’s very pleased,” she says.

Williams, a 30-year smoker, hasn’t picked up a cigarette since she left the hospital. Her cooking has changed from frying to baking or steaming. She cut out salt, avoids stress and watches her portion sizes. She now drinks one cup of coffee instead of a whole pot. She wasn’t able to return to work in the poultry houses because of the poor air quality.

“Dr. Fernandez was God’s gift to me,” she says. “To me, my husband and my family.”

Marshall South’s goal is to offer cardiac care as good as that offered anywhere else.

"I believe that the hospital is committed to providing excellent medical care, especially in cardiology, with the same standards comparable to any other hospital in the country providing the same level of care," says Dr. Fernandez. 

First interventional cardiologist in the county

Dr. Fernandez was the first interventional cardiologist to practice full time in Marshall County. He has been on staff at Marshall South since 1999. He performs angioplasty, stents and cardiac and peripheral angiography, as well as pacemaker and defibrillator implants.

Dr. Fernandez is very proud of the accomplishments made possible by having a cath lab at South, which he started in 2003. The cath lab team is required to be within 30 minutes of the hospital all the time when they are on call. They have the ability to perform life-saving measures in less time than it takes to transport a patient to Huntsville, which takes an hour from the Boaz area. A helicopter takes more than a half hour, he says.

The only limitation of what can be done for heart patients now at South is open-heart surgery.

“I would honestly say we’ve saved a lot of lives here,” Dr. Fernandez says. “As more people get comfortable staying here, we’ll be doing more. Who knows, years from now we might have open-heart surgery.”

The Williams have three grown children. Patricia now works in the cafeteria at Guntersville Elementary School while her husband handles the poultry houses.  

The couple had returned home from the poultry houses to have lunch the day that Patricia started having trouble breathing. She said there never was a warning of a heart attack, although she does have some cardiovascular disease in her family history. She remembers riding in the ambulance and being resuscitated in the emergency room. She woke up in ICU the next morning.  

“I’m very blessed,” she says. “Dr. Fernandez was my saint and my family’s saint.”