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Broken Heart: Call Saves Veteran’s Life

A doctor and patient hug

Dr. Alexis Harrison and her patient, Air Force Veteran Larry Kerr.

by Tom Cramer, VA Staff Writer
Monday, November 25, 2013

Larry Kerr, a 65-year-old Air Force Veteran, was sound asleep while his phone was ringing off the hook. It was the most important call of his life and he was missing it.

Was it the Publishers Clearing House people calling with some good news? Was it the IRS calling to tell him he had a big refund coming? Sadly, no.

It was the VA, calling to warn the Syracuse, Utah resident that he was in imminent danger of dying.

A Routine Visit to the Doctor

“I saw Mr. Kerr on June 5 in my clinic here at the Salt Lake City VA,” explained Dr. Alexis Harrison. “He came in for a routine visit. I already knew he had a heart condition, but then he told me about some new symptoms. He told me he often felt like his heart was racing.”

“I’d also been feeling out of breath,” Kerr said, “and I was tired all the time. So I went to the VA to get it checked out.”

“We ran a few tests, including an echocardiogram,” Harrison said. “His echocardiogram at baseline isn’t normal because of his heart condition, but I didn’t notice any new changes. Still, I wanted to make sure, so I sent him home with a Holter monitor.”

(A Holter monitor is a device that records your heart rhythm. If anything funny is going on with your ticker, the monitor sends out an alert and your doctor is notified.)

“You wear it for 48 hours,” Harrison said. “Mr. Kerr was experiencing heart palpitations on a regular basis, so I was fairly sure we’d record some information that would be useful.”

Getting Straight

“I’ve been to a lot of doctors and Alexis was the only one who thought about a Holter monitor,” Kerr said. “She wanted to find out what was going on. She told me, “We’re gonna get you straight.’”

The monitor did its job. Within a couple days, it alerted VA doctors that Kerr had a fast and irregular heart rhythm that had the potential to kill him suddenly.

“Mr Kerr had developed fast and recurrent ventricular tachycardia,” explained Dr. Jose Nativi-Nicolau, a heart failure specialist at the Salt Lake City VA. “People with this condition, combined with a history of heart disease are at risk from what we call Sudden Cardiac Death. I knew we needed to get in touch with him quickly.”

“The VA started calling me, frantically,” Kerr said. “But they couldn’t reach me. It was about 10:30 in the morning, and I was still sleeping. The morning is when I get my deepest sleep. I have insomnia, so I usually sleep until about noon. But then they started calling my cell phone.”

 Our whole goal is to learn as much as we can about our patients, develop a relationship with them and help them lead long, healthy lives. 
— Dr. Alexis Harrison, Salt Lake City VA

Half Asleep

“I called his home phone, and he wasn’t answering,” Nativi-Nicolau said. “I wasn’t going to just leave a message; the situation was too urgent. I needed to talk with someone. So I called his cell phone and he finally picked up.”

Kerr said he was still a bit too groggy to grasp what was happening. “I was still half asleep,” he said, “but I could hear the doctor saying, ‘Mr Kerr, get to the emergency room right now.’”

“First, I asked Mr. Kerr how he was feeling,” Nativi-Nicolau said. “He told me he was still having heart palpitations. I told him his Holter monitor was telling us he had a dangerous heart condition that needed to be addressed immediately. I told him he needed to get to the closest ER right now.”

“He was a little confused and anxious,” the doctor continued. “He said, ‘Do I have to go right now?’ He didn’t seem sure about what to do. So I told him I was calling 911. I told him to get ready, that an ambulance would be in front of his house in five or 10 minutes.”

The good doctor wasn’t exaggerating. Within a few short minutes, local police, fire and emergency medical service personnel were at Kerr’s door.

“I was still in my plaid pajamas,” Kerr said. “I didn’t even get a chance to comb my hair or put my glasses on.”

Smelling the Roses

The Air Force Veteran was promptly rushed to the nearest hospital. He was stabilized and then transferred to the Salt Lake City VA where doctors performed a life-saving operation.

“I’m grateful to all the people at the VA who helped me,” Kerr said. “And there was a ton of them, from the lady who drew my blood to the doctor who put the defibrillator and pacemaker in my chest. They’re all responsible for giving me back my life. They saved me.”

“I could have died that morning,” he added. “I suppose dying in your sleep isn’t a bad way to go. There would have been no pain, no nothing. But it would have been painful for my family.”

Upon further reflection, Kerr concluded that having a heartbeat is still a whole lot better than the alternative. “I still get to work on my rose bushes and my flowers,” he said. “I’m watering them this morning, because it’s been so hot. And I still get to be with my wife, my children and my ‘68 Mustang.”

“I guess every day you don’t wake up dead is a good day,” he observed.

“This story has a happy ending because a lot of different people did their jobs,” said Nativi-Nicolau, the VA doctor who made those persistent phone calls to Kerr’s home. “The ambulance crew, the staff at the local hospital, our people here at the VA … we all worked as a team.”

“I’m glad we were able to help Mr. Kerr,” he added. “That’s what we want. We want him to enjoy his life.”