When Roger Seals of Albany started feeling pain below the bottom of his sternum (breastbone) he did not think it might have something to do with his heart. In addition to his work at his restaurant – aptly named Roger’s Restaurant – he’d been taking care of his wife Ruby, who was diagnosed with dementia and had also suffered a stroke.
“I thought ‘Why would I have pain down there?’” he said. “I thought maybe it was an ulcer from stress.”
After the pain, which usually came on when he was active, persisted for three months, Seals and his health care team started looking into what might be going on. He’d had a stent put in one of the arteries to his heart in 1998 and his cardiologist recommended putting in a new stent, to be sure the artery was open for blood flow.
During the procedure at Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center, though, the doctors found that there was significant plaque buildup in all three of the major blood vessels to his heart and when Seals woke up, he was told he would need a quadruple bypass – open-heart surgery.
Cardiac Surgeon Billie-Jean Martin, MD, of Samaritan Heart Center, was at the hospital that day, Dec. 18. She discussed Seals’ heart health and the surgery with him and let him know she would be able to perform the surgery the next morning.
“I had complete confidence in her,” Seals said. “The process was just fantastic. They kind of talk you through it and keep you relaxed.”
Symptoms of angina – chest pain that happens because there is not enough blood flowing to part of the heart – can often feel like pressure or squeezing in the chest, very much like a heart attack. But Seals’ experience of pain below his breastbone is not uncommon, Dr. Martin explained.
“Angina pain can present in a lot of different ways,” she said. “Sometimes it is not quite as severe, sometimes it can be felt as a tightness in the chest, or even can feel like gastrointestinal pain or back or shoulder pain.”
What is consistent with stable angina, the kind Seals had, is what brings it on. Physical activity can be a trigger and Seals’ experience of having the pain during physical activity, but then the pain going away when he rested, was a clue that plaque may have built up in his arteries, blocking blood flow to his heart. Unstable angina can happen even while resting, the pain can be strong and long lasting and can signal an impending heart attack. Someone experiencing these symptoms should see their doctor right away.
Once it was determined the surgery was necessary, the hope was to get Seals home in time for Christmas. Everything went well and several of his eight adult children visited and stayed with him in the hospital and helped speed his recovery.
“He was very motivated to get better and had a very supportive family,” Dr. Martin said. “We did everything we could to get him home for the holidays.”
He was ready to be discharged from the hospital by Sunday, Dec. 24, and made it home for Christmas Eve. The holiday was admittedly different than previous Christmases, with Seals recovering from major surgery, but it was special nonetheless, with the house full of family and friends.
“Having him here at home was all the Christmas we really needed,” said his son Roger Lee Seals.
Daughter Sandy Wang was the primary caregiver at home for Seals as he recovered from heart surgery and stayed close by for more than three weeks. She appreciated help from her sister, Susan Whitacre.
“She helped a lot,” Wang said. “And she spent the night several times when I needed a break.”
Wang also really appreciated the home health nurse that called each day to check on Seals and see how things were going.
“She would check on his blood pressure and his medications,” Wang said. “I want to share how nice everyone was and how helpful. Those phone calls were a godsend.”
The 82-year-old Seals is now back to his regular, active routine – spending time with family of eight adult children, 12 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren, working at his restaurant a couple of days a week, tending to his garden and orchard, helping neighbors out with their gardens, and – one of his passions – ocean fishing.
“I feel great,” he said. “I don’t have that shortness of breath anymore. I can do everything.”
This is the kind of thing Dr. Martin likes to hear.
“He was a great patient,” she said. “We were happy to be able to get him back to everything he wants to be doing.”
Seals is happy to have such good health care available so close to home at Samaritan Heart Center.
“I got fantastic care,” he said. “Everything that I needed. They took care of it and it was just a great experience. I don’t like hospitals, don’t get me wrong, but I’d recommend it to anyone.”
Cardiac Surgeon Billie-Jean Martin, MD, PhD, came to Samaritan Heart Center through a partnership with Stanford Health Care. She also serves as a clinical assistant professor of cardiothoracic surgery at Stanford University School of Medicine. Samaritan’s partnership with Stanford Health Care, an internationally recognized leader in cardiac surgery, expands access to even more kinds of life-saving procedures for local patients. To learn more about Samaritan Heart Center, visit samhealth.org/Heart.