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‘Don’t hesitate to get help’: One man’s story of surviving a heart attack

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Nhia Ly was cooking at the restaurant he and his wife own when he experienced chest pain, nausea, sweating and shaking. He knew something wasn’t right and headed to the closest emergency department, where he found out he was having a heart attack.

Thanks to the swift, expert care he received, Nhia is feeling better and is back to his regular activities.

Within minutes of starting to help his wife, Zoua, at the family-owned Thai Restaurant Ly Cuisine, in Albemarle, 49-year-old Nhia Ly felt that something just didn’t seem right.

“I had chest pain and shortness of breath. I began sweating and shaking and turning white,” Nhia said of his March health issue. “At first I thought I was having coronavirus (COVID-19) symptoms. My wife told me to relax and eat some ice cream — but it didn’t help. I knew something was seriously wrong, and we decided to go to the emergency department right away.”

Years ago, Nhia had survived an aneurysm – and this time he knew that seeking medical care immediately could be a matter of life and death.

“When I had my aneurysm, I declined to go to the emergency department,” says Nhia. “But I followed up that day with my primary care doctor, and he insisted I get an MRI and CT scan right away. Those tests revealed I was having an aneurysm and needed immediate treatment. If I’d just gone home to sleep it off, as I originally wanted to do, I probably wouldn’t be alive today.”

This time, they immediately sought help at Atrium Health Stanly – just a block away from the restaurant. With visitor restrictions in place due to COVID-19 precautions, Zoua waited outside.

“Everyone was very professional and worked as quickly as possible,” Nhia says. “I knew the masks everyone was wearing, and the extra security measures were there for my own safety. I felt reassured that I was protected from any possible exposure to coronavirus.”

Moments later, doctors assessed Nhia, and an electrocardiogram (EKG) revealed he was having a heart attack.

Every minute counts for those experiencing a heart attack. After stabilizing him, Nhia’s emergency care team quickly jumped into action to transport him to Atrium Health Cabarrus, where Paul Campbell, MD and the Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute cardiac catheterization team were standing by.

Nhia arrived at Atrium Health Cabarrus by ambulance, and the team removed blockages, performing a stent procedure to restore blood flow to the heart.

“I was awake for the entire procedure, which only took about 20 minutes,” Nhia said. “I came out with a second chance in life.”

According to Campbell, “The first hour within a heart attack is ‘the golden hour’ — because that’s when receiving care can make a huge difference in the long-term outcome for the patient. It’s the reason we have protocols in place to ensure that everyone involved in cardiac care acts as one team.”

He adds, “Thanks to a coordinated network of care, we opened the blockage in his heart quickly, and there won’t be any lasting damage to the vessel that was blocked.”

If you think you may be having symptoms of a heart attack, seek medical attention right away by calling 911.

“Cardiovascular disease is the number one cause of death in the United States,” Campbell points out. “To put this in perspective, a person is more likely to die from a heart attack than from COVID-19. When it comes to the heart, time is muscle. The sooner you get care, the better. It’s safe to come to the hospital.”

If you experience any symptoms, such as chest pain, abdominal pain, back pain, nausea or vomiting, lightheadedness, sweating – call 911.

Nhia is already back to work and will be going through virtual cardiac rehabilitation as he recovers.

“I’m glad to be alive,” he says. “I have a new diet and exercise plan, and I feel good.”

His advice to other people right now is: “If you can, stay home and stop the spread of coronavirus. But if you’re not feeling well, seek medical attention right away. Listen to the professionals and follow their directives. Listen to your body. Look after each other and help each other out during these trying times.”