Debora E I’m Very Thankful

“I was blessed to get to the right hospital. They saved my life.”

What happened to Debora Edwards shows how the procedure known as angioplasty or percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI) can save lives—and prevent devastating losses to families.

In September 2019, the now-51-year-old Rumson resident was rushed to Monmouth Medical Center (MMC) with a heart attack. Three years later, in an emotional reunion outside the hospital’s Emergency Department (ED), she was finally able to thank a doctor who had been part of a team that kept her alive.

“All I could think about in the ambulance three years ago was my husband and kids, who were 12 and 9 at the time,” Debora says. “Now when I look at my children, I remember that without the wonderful professionals who saved my life that day, I would not be here to raise my family.”

A Dire Emergency

Debora had felt sluggish and tired for a few weeks, but the heart attack otherwise came out of the blue. “I’m active, eat a pretty good diet and had no history of heart problems,” she says. “I went from feeling OK to having a full blockage in a matter of minutes.” A friend who happened to be visiting called 911.

The sight of the emergency team at the door of MMC’s ED stands out in Debora’s memory. “It brought this sense of peace and trust when I saw everybody waiting and ready,” she says. “It meant a lot.”

Harisios Tjionas, DO
Harisios Tjionas, DO

“I remember that day well,” says Harisios Tjionas, DO, an emergency medicine physician at MMC and a member of RWJBarnabas Health Medical Group, who is the doctor Debora reunited with in 2022. “She went into a dangerous arrhythmia called ventricular fibrillation where the heart quivers in a chaotic fashion. She was in cardiac arrest, with no heartbeat or blood pressure, no pulse, no cardiac output. That happened right in front of our eyes. Had she come five or 10 minutes later, she might not have made it.”

Debora’s heart attack was caused when the inner layer of a damaged coronary artery peeled off, or dissected, and blocked blood flow. This relatively uncommon type of blockage, called spontaneous coronary artery dissection (SCAD) due to fibromuscular dysplasia (FMD), is more prevalent in women than men, and those affected are often comparatively young. Debora’s SCAD occurred in the left anterior descending artery, which supplies two-thirds of blood going to the heart.

Isaac Tawfik, MD
Isaac Tawfik, MD

“Having a heart attack in this area is sometimes described as a widowmaker,” says Isaac Tawfik, MD, Chief of Cardiology and Medical Director of the cardiac catheterization (cath) lab at MMC, and a member of RWJBarnabas Health Medical Group. “It’s very serious.”

The emergency team revived Debora and quickly sent her to the cath lab. There, an interventional cardiology team performed her angioplasty, a minimally invasive procedure used to open blocked arteries that deliver blood to the heart and, if needed, keep blood vessels open with expandable stents. “Everything happened very quickly,” Debora says.

Once Debora was stabilized, doctors anticipated she would need coronary bypass surgery, and she was taken to Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick. “I spent a few days in intensive care, and they prepared me for bypass,” she says. “But thankfully, I bounced back really quickly, and doctors determined I didn’t need it at that time.”

Expanding Care

For decades, MMC has performed emergency (or, in medical parlance, emergent) angioplasties on patients experiencing the most critical types of heart attack. Now the hospital has received state approval to perform non-emergent angioplasty procedures on an elective basis as well.

“This means that if patients who are less acute come to the hospital for, say, chest pain or an abnormal stress test or worrisome enzyme levels, we not only can do the catheterization to assess their arteries, but if we find blockages, we can fix them in the same procedure,” Dr. Tawfik says. “Previously, we would need to transfer a non-emergent patient to a different hospital authorized to do elective angioplasty. Essentially, the patient would need to have a second procedure to fix the problem we had identified.”

A 58-year-old Long Branch man was the first MMC patient to receive an elective angioplasty. He didn’t have a heart emergency but came to the hospital with chest pain and difficulty breathing. When testing revealed multiple occlusions in his arteries, he was able to receive his PCI procedure close to home from the same care team. “I’m feeling 100 percent better,” he says. “I can move better and have more stamina.”

“We probably saved him between one to three days of additional hospital stay and the cost of transport by ambulance to another facility,” Dr. Tawfik says. “Having elective angioplasty available at MMC gives patients options for treatment and enables more of them to receive high-quality care in a timely manner from great doctors in their own community.”

Debora attests to the value of that care. “My former sister-in-law is a nurse, and she once told me, ‘If anything ever happens, you want to go to MMC,’” Debora says. “I was blessed to get to the right hospital. They saved my life, and I’m very, very thankful.”

Whoever your heart beats for, our hearts beat for you. To connect with a top cardiovascular specialist at Monmouth Medical Center, call 888-724-7123.