Boxboro man survives heart attack while working in city

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LOWELL — The morning of Jan. 9, plumber Jason Hilberg arrived at a home on Warren Court to work on a water leak.

The 54-year-old Boxboro resident was tearing down some ceilings, but he didn’t feel good. Hilberg was tired and out of breath, so he told his colleague he’d have to go to the doctor’s office later that day.

He didn’t imagine he’d be rushed to doctors in an ambulance just moments later.

“I started working again, and when I went outside, that’s when I started to feel my arm, the pressure, and my chest started hurting a little bit,” Hilberg said. “I pretty much fell on the ground, on the sidewalk, and that’s why I called 911.”

Hilberg suffered a heart attack, and once he arrived at Lowell General Hospital’s Cardiac Catheterization Laboratory, it was revealed he had a severe blockage — more than 99% — in one of his major coronary arteries. In the medical world, that type of heart attack is called an ST elevation myocardial infarction, or STEMI, which requires “prompt and immediate attention,” said Terri Fegan, clinical manager for the Heart and Vascular Center at Lowell General.

When paramedics and the Fire Department arrived on scene, Hilberg retained consciousness, answering questions as crews checked his vitals and walking onto the ambulance.

“Then they said, ‘Oh, looks like you’re having a heart attack,’” Hilberg said. “And that’s pretty much the last thing I remember.”

Medical personnel inserted two stents — percutaneous coronary interventions — that day and another the following week, Hilberg said.

With a STEMI, “every minute does count,” Fegan said, and Hilberg’s survival was heavily reliant on the coordination between emergency paramedics and the Cath Lab team. That efficiency is measured by their “door-to-balloon time,” or the time it takes for a patient to get a PCI once arriving at the hospital.

The standard, recommended door-to-balloon time is 90 minutes, which improves outcomes and reduces mortality rates. In Hilberg’s case, that time was just 10 minutes, Fegan said.

“If the paramedics hadn’t gotten to him as quickly as they did and did not have the capability of defibrillating him,” Fegan said, “we wouldn’t be having this discussion today.”

When paramedics performed an electrocardiogram, or EKG, on Hilberg, they officially diagnosed that he was having a STEMI. That EKG was then transmitted electronically back to the hospital, which helped doctors prepare for his arrival, Fegan said.

That quick response meant Hilberg received the proper care and “had a relatively uneventful rest of his hospital stay,” Fegan said. And he is very, very lucky.

“All of the planets that must be in alignment, if you will,” she said. “They were that day.”

Between the ambulance ride and the operating room, Hilberg was shocked seven or eight times, said paramedic Deb Whitney. When Hilberg stopped breathing in the ambulance, Whitney began compressions while her partner Doug Roberge charged the monitor and delivered the shock. Hilberg was in and out of normal heart rhythms, requiring multiple shocks in just a 10- to 15-minute drive.

The faster patients get to the Cath Lab, the less likely they’ll lose tissue and muscle, Whitney said. The paramedics receive advanced cardiac life support training and pediatric advanced life support training and heavily prepare for cardiac arrest management, but once the work is done, Whitney said they typically are left without much closure.

“In this job, we don’t always find out people’s outcomes,” Whitney said. “So it’s nice when we do.”

Hilberg’s three children — aged 19, 22 and 23 — were by their father’s hospital bed when he woke after surgery. That, Hilberg said, was the worst part, seeing his kids worried about him.

The heart attack came as a surprise, as Hilberg wasn’t concerned about his heart or noted any symptoms. He always pictured a heart attack like the dramatic one depicted on “Sanford and Son,” that “this is the big one” moment.

“I don’t preach to anybody because I quit smoking and stuff like that,” Hilberg said. “I just say, ‘Hey, if you feel funny at all, you should just call. It’s just a phone call.’”

He said his heart is running at about 25% at the moment, so he plans to check in with doctors in April to decide whether he needs a defibrillator.

Despite the medical turmoil, Hilberg is still doing “light duty” work while he awaits his first rehabilitation appointment later this month. He expressed his gratitude to the hospital staff and paramedics.

“I was pretty lucky I was in Lowell … If I was at my house or I was somewhere else and we had to wait, that wouldn’t have worked out,” Hilberg said. “It just all happened to work out.”

Signs of a potential heart attack include feeling winded after walking or climbing stairs, dizziness, nausea and pain in the arm, shoulder or armpit that doesn’t go away, Whitney said. Family history is important to take into account, Whitney said, and other risk factors include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, poor diet and smoking.

Thankfully, Hilberg made the call, Whitney said. The fact that he’s living and working after a serious attack “is why we do what we do,” she said.

“We have to remember our contact is with him, but he’s someone’s person, he’s someone’s son, dad,” Whitney said. “One person affects so many other people, so giving him more time and better quality of life, it’s huge.”

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