A Life Saved by Cardiac Care on the South Coast
Kurt Dammel was mowing the lawn at his Gold Beach home in June 2017, when a pain in his shoulder forced him to stop. Little did he know that the pain was the beginning of a near-death experience. Kurt told his wife, Stephanie, what was bothering him, and as a retired nurse she immediately recognized the signs: Kurt was having a heart attack.
The Dammels rushed to Curry General Hospital, and not long after they arrived things took a turn for the worse.
“I remember him just before he coded, Stephanie recalls. He sat straight up, and you see it in the cartoons where their eyeballs whirl—his eyeballs actually whirled in his head. “He fell back, and I said, ‘I’m a widow.’”
The doctor immediately began rigorous CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation), and 20 minutes later Kurt’s heart was beating again. The hospital activated a STEMI (ST-elevation myocardial infarction) line and transferred him to Bay Area Hospital. Daniel Brook, lead cardiovascular services tech, was working the day Kurt came into the cardiac catheterization laboratory. “We knew Kurt’s chances for survivability weren’t great because he was in cardiogenic shock, he had heart failure, and we suspected proximal LAD [left anterior descending coronary artery] occlusion,” Brooks says. “All three together, survivability is exceedingly low.”
In the cath lab, John Frank, MD, and Wojciech Nowack, DO, got to work simultaneously. Dr. Nowak began by placing an Impella pump, which moves blood from the left ventricle to the aorta very quickly, taking the work off the heart. Dr. Frank did the intervention to open the blocked artery. Twice during the procedure, Kurt coded and CPR was done, and each time he pulled through.
“I’m hard to kill,” Kurt says with a smile.
Impella pumps, like the one used to save Kurt’s life, are not commonly used, and they are reserved for the very worst cases. It’s also an expensive device for a hospital to purchase, so many facilities don’t have one at all. Fortunately, the stars were aligned for Kurt, and the pump was able to move the blood and oxygen to all of his organs, so he not only survived, he thrived.
After a few days, Kurt’s condition had improved to the point where the Impella pump could be removed, but all the lifesaving CPR had taken a toll on his ribs: many were cracked or broken, and Kurt was suffering from flail chest, a life-threatening condition that occurs when a segment of the rib cage breaks due to trauma and becomes detached from the rest of the chest wall. Kurt was transferred to Oregon Health & Science University to have his chest plated, but prior to the procedure a CT scan found more than just damaged ribs. The odds had been stacked against Kurt from the beginning, and now kidney cancer was in the mix. Kurt’s chest was plated, and he was on his way to recovery.
“I’ve got a pile of metal in me and 52 screws, so I’ve got a small erector set in there,” he says.
Kurt reaches into his pocket for his phone and pulls up a video of his time in the hospital after heart surgery. Tubes trail from his open mouth and nostrils, and his face is drained of color. He looks motionless, aside from the slow rise and fall of his chest.
“That was me,” he says, pausing for a moment. “I don’t remember any of that crap.”
Kurt says he remembers only three of the 24 days he spent in the hospital, but his wife remained at his side the entire time and says her husband is alive today thanks to the care he received.
“He got top-notch all the way. We were lucky the doctor at Gold Beach saved him and got him up here,” Stephanie says. “And Dr. Frank and Dr. Nowak were fantastic—absolutely fantastic.” Amazingly, just two weeks after having his chest plated, Kurt was on his feet and walking. The Dammels opted out of cardiac rehabilitation because Stephanie promised to be harder on him than any rehab center, and her tough love paid off. “I was happy to get out of the house—that’s why I was walking,” Kurt jokes. “At the end of two weeks, I was ready to take that walker and throw it over the cliff. I hated that thing, but you gotta laugh too.”
Three months later Kurt returned to Bay Area Hospital to have a kidney removed. Now a little more than a year has passed, and he’s back to his old self. Kurt is able to climb up into his truck, and he’s been back on his motorcycle. He is even back to mowing the lawn, doing yard work, and enjoying his Gold Beach home.
“Ask me if I want to move,” Kurt says with a grin. When asked the question, he replies, “Hell no, although I think of the hospital and I would move up here [to Coos Bay] for the hospital. But I can’t move the entire property with me, so I guess I’ll stay down there.”