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Story fromKaren and James Brown(Photo: Dede Hatch)Karen Brown could see her husband James had something more than a touch of the flu. He had taken a sick day from the United Way of Tompkins County where Brown is the president. He said he felt queasy and thought he had a case of indigestion. When the feeling didn’t go away, he assumed the office flu bug had caught up with him.

As she was getting ready to turn in for the night, she checked on her husband who was resting on the sofa and watching a basketball game. When he looked up at her, she saw his face was gray. Karen’s concern level rocketed to alarm.

“Then she said she was going upstairs to get dressed and take me to the hospital. I knew from her voice, this was not a request,” Brown recalls.

He had played Division 1 basketball in college and had kept active with exercise and hiking. “I thought I knew my body, and how I responded to exertion. This could not be happening to me,” he says.

Karen was more certain. She had checked a card describing the five warning signs of a heart attack that months earlier her husband had attached to the kitchen refrigerator. As she read off the indicators, she and James realized he had two of the warning signs. His denial flickered, and they headed for Cayuga Medical Center, overlooking the recommended protocol of calling 911 for help if a heart attack is suspected.

A half hour later, they were at the Emergency Department (ED) of Cayuga Medical Center. James still doubted he was having a heart attack. At the ED reception desk Karen’s message was quick and clear: “He’s having a heart attack.”

In moments her husband was on a stretcher, nurses were attaching monitors to his chest and drawing blood for tests. “I still did not think I was having a heart attack,” Brown admits.

After the test results came in, an ED physician delivered the diagnosis. Brown had definitely had a heart attack. His wall of denial collapsed and a wave of guilt flooded in. “I had denied it every step of the way and now faced the truth,” he said.

As Brown recalled the time he wasted while his heart muscle struggled,
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he realized he failed to heed familiar warning signs. “The guilt hit pretty hard. How could I purposely do this to myself, and how could I do this to someone I love? How could I do this to Karen?” Brown asks. He got his answer later that morning when a nurse asked if he knew the first symptom of a heart attack. She offered a single word: Denial.

While being evaluated in the Emergency Department, Brown’s blood pressure was unusually high and his doctor was worried. “I’ve had a low or normal blood pressure all my life,” Brown says. “This was different. My body was not responding in the way it always had. I knew something was definitely wrong.”After his blood pressure came down, Brown was prepared for cardiac catheterization. Dr. Marcis Sodums, an interventional cardiologist with the Cayuga Heart Institute at Cayuga Medical Center, made a small incision in Brown’s wrist. Next, a thin catheter was guided to his heart. The procedure, called percutaneous coronary intervention or PCI, allowed Sodums to inspect the coronary arteries. In Brown’s case, a bit of plaque had broken off an arterial wall causing a temporary blockage of blood flow to his heart muscle. The catheterization also showed where plaque had narrowed two blood vessels. Sodums inflated a small balloon on the tip of the catheter to widen the arteries and inserted two stents to maintain the openings. Tests showed no damage to Brown’s heart.

That Thursday night and on Friday, the Browns stayed in the hospital doing lots of hall walking as part of his initial cardiac rehabilitation. He went home on Saturday. He returned to work at the United Way on Wednesday, “probably too soon” he says, but kept a light schedule for several days.

Since February, Brown regularly sees Cayuga Heart Institute cardiologist Dr. Brian Marino for checkups that have all been good. He joined a twice weekly program for cardiac rehabilitation at the Center for Healthy Living of Cayuga Medical Center where the trainers’ support and enthusiasm keeps Brown motivated. Each day he makes sure to walk 10,000 steps,
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sometimes more on the weekends. With the exercise and a keener eye on meal portions he’s walking 20 pounds lighter on the road to full recovery.