The Long Road Home
This story was originally published in the Fall 2021 edition of The Monitor.
After a weeklong vacation spent visiting family in Virginia, Dale Richardson, 57, and his girlfriend Merri planned to spend most of Labor Day 2020 on the road, heading north to their hometown of Bucyrus, Ohio.
Shortly after the couple crossed the Ohio state line, Merri noticed that Dale was covered in sweat and visibly uncomfortable. She urged him to pull over, but Dale insisted that he was fine as he mopped the sweat from his face and kept driving.
“I just felt like I had massive indigestion,” Dale explained. “I didn’t have any pain, but I had this bloated feeling in my chest.”
When the pressure in Dale’s chest intensified, Merri insisted they pull off at the next rest stop. By the time they parked the vehicle, Dale’s discomfort was unbearable; he lay down in the grass as a panicked Merri dialed 911. The dispatcher informed her that an ambulance was close by and could reach Dale in a matter of minutes, and while Merri waited for Hocking County EMS to arrive, she found comfort in the kindness of strangers. A man traveling with his family stayed to pray with her, and then drove her car to Fairfield Medical Center so she could stay with Dale in transit.
“They didn’t know a thing about us, and they went out of their way to help,” Merri remembered. “It was so touching. That was the first of so many acts of kindness.”
Inside the ambulance, Hocking County EMS identified Dale’s heart attack as being especially urgent: He was experiencing a STEMI (ST-elevated myocardial infarction), or a heart attack caused by a 100 percent blockage. Using lifesaving technology, the team transmitted Dale’s EKG results to Fairfield Medical Center’s Emergency Department during transport, alerting the cardiac team of their patient’s condition ahead of arrival. The paramedics knew they had to get Dale to the hospital, and they had to do it fast.
Dale was alert and in good spirits as he was wheeled through the doors of FMC’s Emergency Department. “I thought it was going to be a cakewalk,” Dale remembered. “I’m right with God, and I had no fear; I just knew I was going to be OK no matter what.”
Certain that the worst was behind him, Dale glanced over his shoulder. With a smile and a wink at Merri, he gave her a thumbs-up. The endearing moment would become one of his last memories of the day. His heart stopped less than a minute later.
“I was looking right at him, and I just knew his heart had stopped,” Merri recalled. “I knew they were trying to revive him.”
As Merri was whisked away, Fairfield Medical Center’s Emergency Department Team began performing CPR and administering cardiac life support. They continued chest compressions, gained access to Dale’s airway and used the defibrillator to deliver shock after shock to his unresponsive heart. For half an hour, they worked. As the minutes ticked by, Dale’s chances for survival and recovery grew slim. And still, the team refused to give up.
On the 14th shock of the defibrillator, Dale’s heart began to beat once more. Fairfield Healthcare Professionals interventional cardiologist Andrew Stiff, MD, and his team immediately rushed to the Cath Lab, where they implanted an intra-aortic balloon pump to support Dale’s weakened heart and inserted a stent to open the blocked artery.
“Every single person on our team was determined to save Dale’s life that day,” Dr. Stiff recalled. “As healthcare providers, that’s our calling. But to be part of a group that shares that passion so strongly is really something special.”
The teamwork was no small feat. In the midst of a holiday weekend, providers and staff members poured in from far and wide to assist in Dale’s care. While some were already at the hospital, others traveled from home at a moment’s notice. Upon receiving the call, cardiologist Jeremy Buckley, MD, immediately arrived at FMC to help manage Dale’s condition. Meanwhile, cardiothoracic surgeon P. Aryeh Cohen, MD, alerted his specialty team to the critical situation unfolding in the Cath Lab, and pulmonologist and critical care provider Jarrod Bruce, MD, took the lead on tending to Dale’s failing respiratory system.
“Dale was very critically ill,” Dr. Stiff recalled. “As a new member of the medical staff at the time, I was impressed by the speed and agility of my peers. From the quick response of Dr. Mark Darnell and the ED team to the skill of the Cath Lab crew, it was a perfect team effort. It made me realize very quickly how lucky I am to be a part of FMC.”
Ultimately, it was determined that Dale’s cardiac arrest was caused by a 100 percent blockage of the right coronary artery, which can cause permanent damage to the heart muscle if not resolved quickly.
“In these cases, time is of the essence, which made it even more important that our team was able to operate like a well- oiled machine,” Dr. Stiff explained.
Once stable, Dale was transferred to the ICU, where he was visited daily by Merri. During those long days, she had numerous interactions with members of FMC’s team.
“Everybody at FMC was wonderful,” she shared. “I actually call them my family. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think of them, because they really helped me get through that difficult time.”
Merri said that the chaplain visited her each of the 15 days Dale spent at FMC. When the hospital’s Environmental Services staff noticed she wasn’t eating, an incredibly thoughtful housekeeper brought her lunch and continued to check on her throughout the week. An ICU nurse even opened her home to Merri, offering her a place to stay in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic just so she could be closer to Dale. While she declined the offer, those small acts of kindness helped Merri remain connected and hopeful in a time of uncertainty and isolation.
“The nurses, doctors, surgeons, everyone – they were all absolutely amazing,” she said. “At one point, they offered to transfer Dale to a hospital closer to Bucyrus, and we refused. I didn’t mind driving four hours every day. He was going to stay at Fairfield Medical Center, there was no question.”
After two weeks of around-the-clock critical care, Merri formed a bond of trust with Dale’s providers – it was a relationship that served her well through countless trials and tribulations. In some of the hardest moments, she knew she could count on Dr. Stiff and FMC’s clinical staff for honesty and reassurance.
“We are always trying to balance being clinical and realistic with remaining optimistic,” Dr. Stiff shared. “Every time we speak with family members and patients, we try to keep them informed about our plan and the possible outcomes. This transparent communication is helpful in managing expectations – and Dale’s case is proof that excellent medicine, coupled with genuine care and compassion, can lead to impressive outcomes.”
On two separate occasions, Dale’s care team prepared his loved ones for the worst. The first instance was the evening of his heart attack. In the ICU, Dale’s family grappled with the gravity of his situation: At worst, Dale would not survive. If he did pull through, there was a chance that he would never regain normal brain function. It was during this heart-wrenching waiting game that Merri most appreciated the truthfulness of the staff – and their commitment to giving her the courage to hope.
“I stumbled upon this Bible on my way home one night,” Merri recalled. “I pulled over to wait for a storm to pass, and there it was on the ground. In that moment, I felt so much peace – like it was a sign that everything was going to be OK. All of those small reminders of hope kept me going.”
The next day, Dale’s condition started to improve, and he was beginning to show signs of brain activity. When he did finally open his eyes, Merri was the first person he saw.
“When I woke up, she was standing beside me,” Dale said with a smile. “She was with me every single day. And she explained to me that there were great people caring for me, and that FMC was a great place to be.”
Dale, of course, soon realized this for himself. “I can’t give them enough praise for the work they do,” he said. “The doctors and nurses at FMC were absolutely phenomenal. They were so good to me – and they were kind to my family. I can’t say enough about Fairfield Medical Center. We were blessed all the way around.”
With an unbelievable recovery in the works, the blessings continued. Dale showed no evidence of brain damage, and on Sept. 19 – 12 days after his heart attack – he took his first steps, officially becoming what his care team could only describe as a walking miracle. On Sept. 21, Dale was discharged from FMC, returning home for the first time since before his vacation nearly three weeks earlier.
“To see Dale recover the way he did was incredible,” Dr. Stiff said. “It serves as a clear reminder of why I chose this profession – to not only save lives, but hopefully improve them. Dale was able to return home to his family in Bucyrus, and our team is thrilled to have played a role in that reunion.”
Following his discharge, Dale and Merri continued to make the long trip to Lancaster to see Dr. Stiff for routine follow-up appointments. When Dale walked into the Fairfield Healthcare Professionals Cardiology office two weeks after his departure from FMC, the team couldn’t believe it. And when Dr. Stiff realized Merri was waiting out in the car because of COVID-19 restrictions, he walked outside to speak with her.
“The fact that Dr. Stiff took the time to come out and see me was so personable and wonderful,” Merri said. “We pray for him and his team members at FMC every day – for their strength and their protection and their health. Through all of this, we received so many blessings from perfect strangers. More than ever before, I think it’s important to remember that there is still so much good in the world.”
Now, Dale is feeling better than he has in years, sharing that he never realized how poorly he felt until he returned home from the hospital at the end of September. He is back to working his five acres of land, rebuilding cars, romping with his dogs and cherishing his relationships with family and friends. His words of advice to those around him are simple: Firstly, if you have health concerns, don’t hesitate to get them checked out. Secondly, never forget to appreciate your guardian angels and the kindness of strangers.
“Every day is a blessing. From the moment I had my heart attack to where I am today, it was all perfectly orchestrated,” Dale shared. “From stopping at the rest stop, to the EMS squad being in the right place at the right time, Dr. Stiff and his team being prepared for us, and all of the wonderful people we met along the way, it was a symphony created by God to get me where I am now. That’s something I’ll always remember.”
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