When Eric Herdejurgen gets home from his job as a control operator at an oil company in Port Arthur, he likes to blow off some steam by getting on his Peloton® bike. One night this past January, the ride did not go as planned.
Herdejurgen, 48, always felt he was relatively healthy. He did have high blood pressure, which he was taking medication for, and he was a bit overweight, but never had any heart issues. That night, however, his wife, Aliyah, a cardiac nurse at Memorial Hermann Heart & Vascular Institute, recognized the signs of a heart attack and immediately called 911. “I started to go downhill in the ambulance, and Memorial Hermann Life Flight came and picked me up and took me to the Texas Medical Center,” Herdejurgen said. “I don’t remember the CPR, or the helicopter ride. I briefly remember being in the emergency room at Memorial Hermann when they shocked me. I was shocked a couple times.”
Emergency staff performed CPR for almost 75 minutes; about 45 minutes of that was in transit in the Life Flight helicopter. Herdejurgen was found to have a 100% occlusion of his left anterior descending artery, which is also informally called a “widow maker,” which leaves no question about its usual outcome.
Doctors placed Herdejurgen on the extra-corporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) machine. This advanced treatment is for critically ill patients with life-threatening heart or lung problems. The machine pumps blood from the patient’s body to an artificial lung (oxygenator) that adds oxygen to it and removes carbon dioxide, giving the heart and lungs a chance to rest. The blood is warmed to body temperature and pumped back into the body. Meanwhile, doctors placed a stent in Herdejurgen’s artery to restore blood flow. The procedure was a success.
Two pioneering heart doctors— Igor Gregoric MD, a professor of cardiothoracic with UTHealth Houston Heart & Vascular and program director of the surgical division for the Memorial Hermann Center for Advanced Heart Failure, along with Biswajit Kar, MD, a professor of cardiology at UTHealth Houston Heart & Vascular and chief of the medical division for the Center For Advanced Heart Failure at Memorial Hermann—were instrumental in laying the groundwork for patient bedside ECMOs and equipping Life Flight with the lifesaving machine. The Center for Advanced Heart Failure is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, following a decade of rapid expansion.
“In our short existence, we have made tremendous advances in structural heart, minimally invasive surgery and catheter-based therapies,” Dr. Kar said. “We have also been involved with the development of new pumps and innovative technologies to improve health and survival. Our team is committed to doing whatever it takes to improve the lives of our patients.”
Herdejurgen spent three weeks in the hospital following his procedure, and then he began the long, arduous rehabilitation process.
“I’m still doing physical therapy and cardiac rehab. I’m about halfway through,” Herdejurgen said. “I’m also watching my diet and exercising. I’ve lost 50 pounds. I’m trying to eat better: no sugar, sodas or red meat, and more vegetables and fruit. I’m just eating clean.”
He takes several pills every day to regulate blood pressure, cholesterol, insulin and iron, and to help control his weight. He also has a pacemaker now. At this point, his heart is pumping at 35% capacity.
“It’s still hard to walk up the stairs. I can’t run or jog. I can only curl about 12 to 15 pounds, and I can’t do strenuous activities because I don’t have the endurance,” Herdejurgen said. “At least I can take a shower now without feeling wiped out. I couldn’t do any of that before. It’s getting better, but it’s kind of slow.”
The experience has put life into perspective for Herdejurgen, his wife and his four sons. He’s more aware now that life is short and he wants to make the most of it. He encourages everyone to go for regular checkups, get their hearts checked and take steps toward a healthy lifestyle.
“I credit everyone at UTHealth Houston and Memorial Hermann for saving my life. They never gave up on me, and I cannot thank them enough,” Herdejurgen said. “I’ve been given a second chance, and I am going to make the most of it with my family and by doing the things I love.”
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