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TJ Hanes throws the first pitch

Heart attack survivor TJ Hanes, 51, throws the first pitch Thursday during the Billings Mustangs vs. Ogden Raptors game at Dehler Park.

When TJ Hanes, 51, went out to a local shooting range on Memorial Day, he’d been fighting for a few days with what he thought was heartburn.

But it didn’t take long for him to realize it was a precursor to something much more serious: a major heart attack.

His survival is thanks in part to some ambulance equipment provided by an American Heart Association initiative called Mission: Lifeline that had been installed only a day earlier. The equipment allowed Hanes to bypass the Billings Clinic emergency room and go directly to the cath lab where he received potentially life-saving care less than an hour after the call was made to 911.

“I had no reason to believe I was having a heart attack,” Hanes said. “I don’t know if it’s denial of it or it just doesn’t occur to you.”

A few months later, after making lifestyle changes and finishing cardiac rehabilitation, he’s well on the way to recovery and wants people to understand it can happen to them.

Hanes recently sat down with Dr. Brian Rah, a cardiovascular interventionist and chair of Billings Clinic’s cardiology department, to talk about his story and cardiac care in general.

While Rah didn’t work on Hanes when he came in, he is familiar with the case and even received the alert from the ambulance equipment the day Hanes had his heart attack.

“One of the most important things, as far as heart attacks, is getting that artery open,” Rah said. “Ideally, we’d like to get that artery open within the first 60 minutes. You’ve got a five-times higher mortality after the first 60 or 70 minutes. From the time (Hanes) called 911, (his) artery was open in 46 minutes.”

On May 25, Hanes was shooting in a rifle competition at a local shooting range. He describes himself as a reasonably healthy man, getting a fair amount of exercise through regular walks, fishing trips and shooting excursions.

But that morning, his back started to hurt and while he was walking back from setting up targets at the range, Hanes couldn’t catch his breath, to the point where he stopped and doubled over, resting his arms on his knees, before sitting down.

“I’ve had enough first-aid training to know something wasn’t right,” he said.

First, he called his wife, but soon after several other shooters called 911 and then drove him down the road to meet the ambulance.

“I didn’t get those guys’ names at the range,” he said. “I want to publicly thank them.”

The ambulance crew began caring for Hanes immediately, giving him aspirin and nitrogen pills and hooking up to an oxygen line. They also quickly hooked him up to a 12-lead electrocardiogram, also called an EKG or ECG, machine, which provides a detailed snapshot of the heart’s electrical activity.

The machine sent Hanes’ information to the emergency department and cardiology teams at Billings Clinic, which allowed him to save precious time.

“When somebody gets an EKG out in the field, it comes straight to our phones. It saves critical time,” Rah said.

Building a system

Mission: Lifeline, an American Heart Association program, focuses on improving care for cardiac patients and getting people to call 911 instead of waiting or driving themselves to the hospital.

“It’s a grant initiative to help improve heart attack care across the state,” said Joani Hope, Mission: Lifeline Montana director. “What we’re really hoping is that we’re building a foundation. It’s all about building a system of care, and that system starts when the patient calls 911.”

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A national three-year initiative that ends in 2017, it is funded largely by a $4.6 million donation by the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust.

The program works to educate providers and set up a standardized care protocol, educate the public on calling 911 early and provide and install the 12 lead EKGs in ambulances, as well as provide the technology to transmit the resulting information to hospitals.

In early May, the AHA presented $345,000 in checks to Billings Clinic, St. Vincent Healthcare, the Billings and Lockwood fire departments, St. Vincent HELP Flight and American Medical Response for the equipment and personnel needed.

Hope said the program’s goal is to cover 95 percent of Montana with the equipment and that it has already surpassed that goal, covering about 98 percent.

“That speed is so important,” Hope said. “For the type of heart attack (Hanes) had, they’re the most deadly kind. Getting that extra time is saving his heart muscle.”

Rah agreed and said that the field EKG results are sent straight to emergency and cardiac staff, from the field.

“It sends that notification while they’re still out there, and I can most likely know which artery it is before they’re here,” he said. “We’re ready to go when you get there and every minute we have is critical. This system is very helpful.”

Next step: awareness

Thanks to the information the machine provided, staff knew he’d suffered a major heart attack and took him directly to the catheterization lab for specific treatment.

Once in the catheterization lab, doctors put in a stent to open up the artery.

“The doctor said, ‘You’re having a major heart attack,’” Hanes said. “They put it in before you knew it.”

Hanes is now finishing up cardiac rehabilitation at Billings Clinic and has made lifestyle changes — mostly through an improved diet and more regular exercise — in an effort to prevent future attacks.

However, he said that before he didn’t know how to properly recognize all of the symptoms of a heart attack, such as the heartburn feeling he’d had, and didn’t think it was something that would happen to him.

On Thursday night, Hanes shared his story in a short video with the crowd at Dehler Park for a Billings Mustangs baseball game as part of the team’s annual collaboration with Billings Clinic to promote heart disease prevention, called Raise the Roof in Red.

He also threw out the game’s first pitch.

Officials said that Hanes’ story shows the importance of calling 911 quickly and not waiting, even if you’re not sure if it’s a heart attack.

“A lot of people don’t call 911,” Rah said. “We’re trying to get more people to call 911 because that’s when the care starts.”

Hanes said he hopes his story will serve as an eye-opener to others.

“I didn’t feel bad before,” he said. “If it can happen to me, with the way I feel, it can happen to anyone.”

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