John Dailey was having trouble getting out of bed, even as his dog, Birkley, waited eagerly for her morning walk.
It was 6:50 a.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 16, and the alarm had gone off 20 minutes earlier. Dailey, 54, knew he had to get going. He just felt so tired.
As he sat up, pain struck the middle of his chest and radiated to his sides. A former paramedic, he felt a shiver of recognition. Reflexively, he took a quick mental inventory.
How's my breathing? Is it getting worse when I take a deep breath? No.
For a moment, he felt relieved. Then pain spread to his jaw and left arm. Cold sweat poured down his face. All classic symptoms. But "I'm in full-blown denial," he later admitted. "I'm still figuring it's going to go away."
He made his way to the bathroom in his Minneapolis loft and glanced at the mirror, horrified. His skin was the color of putty, a grotesque ashen gray. "That's when I decided to call the ambulance," he said.
The most extraordinary hour of John Dailey's life was about to begin. He would learn, firsthand, about the quiet medical revolution that has given emergency teams the power to stop a heart attack.7:05 a.m.
Dailey grabbed his cell phone and dialed 911. I think I'm having a heart attack, he heard himself say.
A divorced father of two, he stretched across his bed, cradling the phone. The rescue teams were on their way, the dispatcher told him.
The pain began to subside as he lay on the bed, and he felt a twinge of dialer's remorse. Had he acted too quickly?
As a paramedic in the 1980s, Dailey had never minded false alarms: "If people called and it turned out to be nothing, it was wonderful. It was a blessing." But as a patient, he couldn't help wondering. Until the pain started again.
He put Birkley in her kennel and unlocked the front door.7:10 a.m.
An ambulance pulled in front of his downtown loft, a few moments behind a fire truck. Rescuers streamed into his first-floor condo like a medical SWAT team, giving him oxygen, taking his vital signs. Dailey's pulse was weak, his blood pressure plummeting. A paramedic hooked him up to an EKG machine. You're having an inferior MI, the man said calmly.
A heart attack.
Dailey knew the jargon. For 30 years, he'd been in the health care field as a paramedic and business consultant. He also knew, right off the bat, that he had several strikes against him: He smoked, loved fast food and didn't exercise as much as he should. Yet he wasn't classically overweight, took blood pressure pills and had normal cholesterol. If there was a family history of heart disease, Dailey didn't know it; he was adopted.
Strapped onto a gurney, Dailey felt the sting of cold air as paramedics wheeled him out of his home and into the ambulance.7:18 a.m.
Inside the rig, one of the paramedics called ahead to Abbott Northwestern Hospital. "Activate the cath lab," he said. Within moments, digital pagers would start buzzing throughout the hospital, alerting some 30 people -- from heart specialists to technicians to chaplains to security guards -- that a heart attack patient was on the way.
Dailey, hooked up to IVs and monitors, watched the drama unfolding around him as if in a dream. A firefighter opened the ambulance door and tossed Dailey's keys to a paramedic. We locked up his loft, he said. Everything's OK.7:28 a.m.
The ambulance took off for the hospital, its siren blaring. For Dailey, the sound was unnerving. Back in his day, paramedics thought sirens made heart-attack patients more anxious and tried not to use them -- unless the patient was critical. This is not a good sign, he thought.7:36 a.m.
The ambulance pulled into the hospital's emergency bay. The back doors of the rig flew open, and Dailey saw a doctor and emergency-room team, all in their hospital scrubs, waiting for him. As a paramedic, he'd never seen anything like it. Waiting outside for a patient? Again, he thought, This is not a good sign.
But a lot had changed, he would learn, since his paramedic days. Five years ago, Abbott transformed the way it handles patients like Dailey to speed them through the door as fast as possible and into treatment.7:38 a.m.
During a pit stop in the emergency room to stabilize him, Dailey was peppered with questions, hooked up to monitors and pumped full of drugs to thin his blood and ease his pain. If he had been wearing pants, they would have come off at this point, but he was still in his boxer shorts. Jeff Eurich, a nurse, arrived to guide him on this unnerving journey and offer some encouraging words. Yes, this seems crazy, but we do it all the time, Eurich likes to tell patients. You're in good hands.7:50 a.m.
Dailey rode out of the emergency room on his gurney, speeding toward the catheterization lab with Eurich and a technician. The cath lab, he knew, was where doctors plumb the arteries to find blockages and break them up. He heard someone ask: Do we have a consent signed? Another replied: We don't need one for an emergency. Dailey spoke up. I consent to anything.7:52 a.m.
Dailey lay on the table, wide-eyed, as Dr. Robert Hauser, a cardiologist, studied his EKG. There was no mistaking it: a total blockage in the right coronary artery. Part of his heart was getting no blood at all. Dr. Yale Wang explained to Dailey what he was going to do: search for the blockage, remove it and restore blood flow as fast as possible.7:59 a.m.
Wang inserted a catheter in Dailey's groin, snaking it up through an artery while watching the images on an overhead monitor. Wang injected dye to pinpoint the blockage, used a special catheter to suck out the blood clot, and inflated a tiny balloon to press open the passageway.8:04 a.m.
Fifty-nine minutes after he dialed 911, blood flow was restored to Dailey's heart.
Wang finished off by placing two drug-coated stents in Dailey's artery to help keep it from blocking up again. A few minutes later, doctors tested his heart, and it was pumping normally. When it was all over, Wang congratulated his patient for coming in so quickly. Dailey heard the words a little differently: It was a good thing you got here when you did.
As far as the doctors can tell, there's little, if any, permanent damage to his heart. "His prognosis is excellent," Hauser said.
Within two days, Dailey was home again, contemplating his brush with death. "Twenty years ago, I don't know that I would have survived," he said. He can't get over how many people were involved in the rapid chain of events that saved his life. "That's the amazing part," he said. "Nobody dropped the ball."
Three and a half weeks later, Dailey is transforming his life: he stopped smoking, gave up (most) fast food, and is exercising in rehab three times a week.
"I've been given a tremendous gift of a second chance," he said, "and I'm not going to blow it."
Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384