Melissa Ham’s voice is still a little shaky when she recalls being told that her husband, Chris, had about a 1-in-3 chance of surviving the heart attack that occurred at their home on July 13, 2016.
Today, a little more than a year-and-a-half later, her husband of 20 years, father of their four children and grandfather of their three grandchildren, says he feels like a “million bucks” thanks to his wife’s quick thinking and the heart team at Missouri Baptist Medical Center.
It all began in the early evening when Chris Ham, 47, had decided to cut up a tree limb that had fallen on his truck after a summer thunderstorm had hit their home in St. Peters.
“I don’t remember anything from that day, not even starting the chainsaw,” Chris says. “My son found me lying next to the truck and ran in to get his mom. They called 9-1-1 from our home phone, and a neighbor called from their cell phone.”
Melissa immediately began CPR, something she’d trained for in the past, and continued chest compressions on Chris until firefighters arrived and took over with a defibrillator. An ambulance then rushed him to Barnes-Jewish St. Peter’s Hospital, the closest local hospital.
While there, he began experiencing pulmonary edema, a condition where his lungs filled with fluid due to severe heart failure. Because his heart was failing and the hospital was unsure of his neurological status after his cardiac arrest, his body temperature was lowered as part of a protocol to enhance brain recovery in the ICU.
As part of a heart care collaboration between Barnes-Jewish St. Peter’s, St. Charles County first responders, and Missouri Baptist, physicians at St. Peter’s consulted with the heart experts at Missouri Baptist to determine the next steps in Chris’ care. He was taken to the cardiac cath lab, where the team diagnosed coronary disease and severe heart failure.
The care team then decided to transfer Chris to Missouri Baptist for more extensive measures unavailable at many more rural hospitals.
“While he was in the ambulance, we got the call that his lungs were filling up with more fluid and they were having a difficult time getting oxygen into his lungs, even with a ventilator,” cardiothoracic surgeon Michael Mauney, MD, said. “We told them to bring him straight to the operating room.
“Chris underwent a two-vessel bypass, but despite the increased blood flow he had round after round of arrhythmias, and was shocked more than 50 times at the end of the operation until we finally got his rhythm under control,” Dr. Mauney says.
“We went through escalating levels of mechanical devices to support him and ended up on ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation), a life-saving heart and lung machine that is used with patients who require a temporary support system for their heart and lungs for days or sometimes weeks.”
Dr. Mauney told Melissa that Chris had about a 1-in-3 chance of surviving. Even if he survived, there was the uncertainty of how his brain would recover from the initial arrest.
“I can’t say enough about Dr. Mauney, who explained everything to us and made sure we understood what to expect. I was overwhelmed by everything, but the nurses and staff were great. They made sure Chris was comfortable, and no one ever gave up on him,” Melissa says. “We had been told before coming to Missouri Baptist that Chris was a ticking time bomb, but they made all the difference and saved his life.”
“The bomb went off for Chris when he had his heart attack. Once you are on such a high level of life support, you have such a mountain to climb to recover,” Dr. Mauney says. “Each hurdle we said he had to clear, he cleared.”
CPR was critical
Without the CPR performed by Melissa, Dr. Mauney is not sure Chris would have survived or even made it to Missouri Baptist.
“She saved his life as much as anybody for recognizing it and doing effective CPR, which circulated enough blood that still had oxygen in it to keep his brain alive,” he says. “Had she stood by and waited for EMS, he would have been brain dead by the next day. You can be impressed by all the bells and whistles of emergency surgery, but CPR was really the most important first step in this.”
Chris remained in the cardiovascular recovery unit for several days. On July 19, Dr. Mauney says he and his partner, Joshua Baker, MD, who brought a wealth of ECMO experience to Missouri Baptist from his time in Boston, went back to the OR, where they took all of the pumps out. Five days later, he underwent a tracheostomy and was taken off of the ventilator. He also had a defibrillator put in for his arrhythmia.
Dr. Mauney praised the nurses who cared for Chris both in the cardiovascular recovery unit and on the heart floor during his entire stay.
“The nurses worked 24/7, monitoring all of his life support, rolling and turning Chris to make sure he didn’t have ulcers, putting tube feeds down his stomach,” he says. “They are tireless and truly care for our patients. Seeing someone like Chris recover so well makes it possible for them to do this all over again for other patients.”
After three weeks at Missouri Baptist, Chris went home on Aug. 8, 2016.
Today, he exercises more, eats healthier and doesn’t smoke. He left his job as a mechanic, where he was exposed to too many chemicals, he says, and now works for the St. Charles School District.
“I know I am very lucky and so grateful for everything and everyone,” he says.
“We did a lot of praying,” Melissa adds. “Everything changed when we got to Missouri Baptist. I don’t think Chris would have survived without everyone there.”
The BJC HealthCare family of hospitals allows patients, like Chris, to access a higher level of comprehensive, coordinated heart care. Whether in an emergency situation or through a referral, our heart care team works together to provide seamless care so you can focus on getting well.