The History of A Heart: A Survivor’s Story

Shirley Hankins walks in Cardiac and Pulmonary Rehab with the supervision of Registered Clinical Exercise Physiologist, Clint James.

When Shirley Hankins experienced heaviness in her chest so severe that she could no longer move, she uttered to her husband, “You need to call an ambulance for me.” She was having a heart attack.

Hankins, an Oil Trough resident, considered herself physically active, and she made efforts to control her food portions; however, there was one thing she had difficulty controlling—her history. Despite her efforts, the high cholesterol that ran its course throughout her family had found its way to her.

Having a family history of conditions associated with heart disease, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes, greatly increases the risk of having a heart attack.  Other factors, such as smoking, also increase the risk. The major symptoms of heart attack include feeling weak, lightheaded, or faint; pain or discomfort in the chest, arms, shoulder, jaw, neck or back; and shortness of breath.

Hankins experienced several of these symptoms.

“Months prior to my heart attack, I started getting exhausted and short of breath,” Hankins said. “It kept getting worse and worse. Finally, it got so bad, that I couldn’t get through a shopping trip, or even finish cooking a meal.”

The exhaustion, along with unexplainable back and neck pain, caused Hankins to be concerned. At the time, she was having lung problems, which was believed to be the root cause of her exhaustion. Then, in March of 2013, she experienced the heaviness and knew it wasn’t her lungs after all, but 

her heart. Her husband, Garland, knew his wife wasn’t well when she asked for an ambulance.

“I’m not a person who complains a lot, so when I asked him to call an ambulance, he realized something was seriously wrong,” she said.

She was transported by ambulance to the White River Medical Center (WRMC) Emergency Room (ER) where physicians and nurses were waiting on her. The physician asked Hankins how much pain she was in on a scale of 1 to 10; she said “20.”

“It all happened so fast,” she said. “From the time I felt like I had to lie down at home, to the time they did my procedure, was about two hours.”

WRMC Interventional Cardiologist, Dr. Richard Van Grouw, discovered that three of Hankins’ arteries were blocked. Blockage is caused by a buildup of plaque in the arteries, which limits blood flow to the heart. In Hankins’ case, one artery was blocked completely, and the other two were 80 percent blocked. Dr. Van Grouw placed stents to open up the arteries.

Hankins stayed at WRMC for nearly a week and was discharged with instructions to wear a Life Vest for 13 weeks by her follow-up Cardiologist, Dr. Garrett Sanford. A Life Vest is a wearable defibrillator that detects life-threatening heart activity and, if necessary, delivers a treatment shock to restore the heart rhythm. Dr. Sanford also made arrangements for Hankins to begin a program of structured exercise and education at WRMC’s Cardiac and Pulmonary Rehabilitation, also known as Cardiac Rehab.

After approximately six weeks in Cardiac Rehab, Dr. Sanford informed Hankins that she had strengthened her heart enough to remove her Life Vest.

“The staff at Cardiac Rehab really keeps you hopping. They are just great,” said Hankins.

Hankins’ health improved significantly in a matter of months, and she was feeling great; however, just before November of 2013, she began to have an all too familiar feeling of gradual fatigue. But this time, she was aware of what those symptoms could lead to, so she took action quickly.

Hankins discussed her symptoms with her Cardiologist, who, upon further tests, found more blockage. As a result, her stents were replaced.

“We caught it early and was able to get it fixed quickly,” she said.

Today, Hankins is back to shopping, and cooking. She can do pretty much anything she wants to do, but she knows her limits.

As a woman with strong faith, Hankins admits that she wasn’t scared when she had her heart attack; however, she was also confident in the fact that she had a healthcare team she could trust. “If it’s my time to go, it’s my time. But I knew everyone at WRMC would take really good care of me, and they did,” she said.

As far as those who have risk factors, Hankins says the best advice she can give is the advice she was given in Cardiac Rehab: Just keep moving. “Staying active is important,” she says.  “Also, pay close attention to your cholesterol and blood pressure, and work hard to keep it under control, especially if high cholesterol and blood pressure run in your family.”

February is American Heart Month. Don’t fall victim to the number one killer in America, Heart Disease; know the risks. It’s also important to know the signs and symptoms of a heart attack. If you are experiencing heart attack symptoms, call 911 immediately.   


Photo Caption: Shirley Hankins walks in Cardiac and Pulmonary Rehab with the supervision of Registered Clinical Exercise Physiologist, Clint James.