This Patient Was Already Battling Organ Failure. Was He Having a Heart Attack, Too?

Nancy J. Delong

This tale at first appeared in our November/December 2021 problem as “Cardiac Crisis.” Simply click here to subscribe to browse more stories like this a person.


The signs or symptoms that brought Louis to the Keck Clinic of University of Southern California appeared a lot less than regarding at very first glance. The forty one-yr-previous mentioned he’d been experience weak and short of breath for the past a few months, and his ft were being swollen.

But imprecise signs or symptoms can from time to time conceal life-threatening risks. Shortly right after arriving, Louis spiraled into respiratory distress, spurring physicians to rush him to the intensive treatment unit and position him on mechanical air flow. There, a swift-fire sequence of diagnostic exams discovered an escalating crisis: Louis experienced lymphoma, a most cancers that affects the body’s pathogen-combating lymphatic process. Unnoticed, the most cancers experienced unfold, eventually sending him into shock as his organs commenced to shut down.

Shortly right after, many younger physicians heard an alarm for the hospital’s cardiology unit. It was Louis. Unconscious and already combating for his life, Louis was now struggling with one more dire prognosis: The electrocardiogram monitoring his heart experienced flagged a possible heart attack.

Code STEMI 

Hartaj Girn, at the time a senior cardiology fellow at USC, moved immediately, making ready for a potentially life-conserving journey to the cardiac catheterization lab. There, physicians could open his blocked artery before way too much injury occurred. 

The unexpected emergency the team considered they were being responding to, named an ST-section elevation myocardial infarction, or STEMI, is a person of the most significant crises for a affected person. “Generally, if there is a STEMI affected person, it requires to be resolved quite urgently. It is a genuinely critical heart attack,” Girn suggests.

A STEMI is commonly distinguished by a characteristic aberration on the studying from an EKG device, which steps the electric exercise of the heart muscle tissue. Wherever there must have been a flat line on Louis’s EKG keep an eye on, there was now a marked upward swoop — a traditional STEMI.

An EKG studying like Louis experienced is normally all a medical doctor requires to authorize a catheterization course of action. A probe is inserted into a patient’s veins and utilized to apparent out the blockage that’s starving the heart of life-providing oxygen. In producing the conclusion, physicians are keenly knowledgeable of cardiology’s golden rule: “Time is muscle mass.” Each individual second that slips absent while a affected person is owning a heart attack usually means more dead tissue and a progressively even worse prognosis. In the course of a STEMI, erring on the side of caution is just about constantly a great plan.

But anything made Girn pause. Right after a few years in the arranged chaos of a swift-response cardiology unit, he’d acquired to acknowledge a traditional heart attack affected person. And anything did not insert up.

Red Warn Reversal

Even though he was seriously ill, Louis, a guy in his early 40s, experienced no serious heritage of cardiovascular problems. And his critical signals, obvious STEMI apart, did not scream “heart attack,” either. Medical professionals would normally be ready to enable deal with the confusion with a several inquiries to a affected person, but Louis was sedated by potent medications — he wasn’t waking up any time quickly.

(Credit score: Kellie Jaeger/Explore)

Considering immediately, Girn asked for an ultrasound device to get a much better seem at Louis’ heart. By working with a probe that emits sonic waves, an ultrasound can reproduce a relocating image of the body’s interior. A heart in crisis will typically transfer sluggishly on a person side, starved of oxygen. But Louis’ heart appeared good.

Girn moved the probe down, to get a seem at the heart from beneath. He pushed on Louis’ stomach as he did, noting how oddly swollen it was. But that peculiarity vanished from his brain as a person of the people in the space pointed out anything else strange: Louis’ EKG studying, which experienced brought them all operating just minutes before, experienced instantly returned to typical. 

Girn was dumbfounded: “STEMIs never go absent with placing a probe on somebody’s chest.” He remembers pondering to himself jokingly, “I remedied a STEMI with my hands.”

Puzzled, he lifted the ultrasound probe off of Louis’ belly. What experienced at first appeared to be a STEMI flashed again on to the display, just as before. Girn recurring the motion a several moments — seeing what appeared like a heart attack look and disappear before his eyes. 

It was anything devoid of any serious precedent, but, Girn suggests, it made a person conclusion less complicated. He cancelled the cath lab transfer, self-assured that Louis wasn’t in quick hazard. 

But that did not apparent up the more substantial query: If it wasn’t a heart attack, what was heading on?

Browsing for Clues 

Girn went again to the cardiac cath space and gathered his team, together with the attending cardiologist, Enrique Ostrzega, for a brief meeting. They realized that, in some unusual conditions, what appears to be a STEMI can really be brought about by anything else — odd EKG readings might be the result of pneumonia, pancreatitis, intestinal bloating and a several other things.

Ostrzega realized just about immediately that Girn made the proper conclusion in holding Louis out of the cath lab. A cardiac catheterization is not an particularly perilous course of action, but a modest percentage of people nonetheless hazard bleeding, stroke and kidney injury. And Louis, whose organs were being already compromised, was at particular hazard from the distinction dye physicians inject through the course of action to check blood flow.

“This distinction agent could have made his kidney failure even even worse,” Ostrzega suggests. “So the price tag to pay back for a course of action that is inadequate, or for the completely wrong diagnosis, is not small.”

But Louis was nonetheless in significant hazard, as his entire body struggled to endure even with the enable of present day health care technological innovation. It was essential to figure out this new wrinkle, quick.

Ostrzega focused the team on Louis’ stomach. They realized it was seriously swollen from an ileus, in which the typical movement of the intestine will come to a standstill. It is not an unusual prevalence on people who are seriously ill. The ileus was causing gasoline to again up in the course of his gastrointestinal tract, distending his stomach. The physicians recalled a several scattered studies that mentioned odd EKG readings as the result of gastric distention, a clue they could be on the proper track. But there was nothing at all in the health care literature that spelled out exactly what they were being working with.

Up coming, the team reviewed an stomach X-ray that experienced been performed shortly before. Huge darkish blobs floated in the middle of Louis’ intestine, indicating empty house in the detrimental coloration of an X-ray. The pressure was so critical, in actuality, that his interior organs experienced been pushed about inside his stomach, displaced by the gasoline pockets. Could this be what was influencing his heart?

To check their hypothesis, the cardio physicians experienced the ICU team launch the trapped air working with a nasal tube. Sure more than enough, Louis’ EKG studying went again to typical. The supposed heart attack was nothing at all more than a lousy circumstance of bloating.

Studying to Exhale

When foodstuff passing by the intestinal tract gets blocked, it can result in gasoline to again up in the stomach cavity. The bloating can be critical, so much so that some people can look to be expecting. An ileus occurs when the intestines eliminate the skill to agreement and continue to keep foodstuff relocating by. They can arise right after surgical procedures on the intestines, as a side result of potent opioid agony relievers, or in people like Louis, whose bodies are starting to shut down.

The heal for stomach bloating, luckily, is commonly very simple. A tube inserted into the intestines by the mouth or nose is usually more than enough to launch the trapped air.

For Girn, it was a lesson in trusting his instincts. “Everything did not insert up the way it typically does,” he suggests. That sliver of subconscious doubt made him take a move again, introducing crucial seconds that finally led to the proper contact. The cardiology team wrote up their patient’s circumstance in the Journals of the American Higher education of Cardiology, possibly the very first-at any time report of a physical maneuver instantly reversing STEMI elevations on an EKG.

Even though Louis benefitted from the doctors’ speedy diagnosis, it’s an unlucky fact that basically resolving a health care secret is not constantly more than enough to preserve someone’s life. Louis finally succumbed to his lymphoma. But Girn’s instincts and swift motion spared his affected person from an pointless invasive course of action that could have additional to Louis’ distress. And the circumstance is an significant addition to the entire body of health care understanding.

“Things are not as apparent-lower as I considered before,” provides Girn. Now, he’s acquired that “regardless of how small time you feel you have for a conclusion, seem at the affected person and consider to make medical feeling of it.” People several times of considered might conclusion up producing all the big difference.  


Nathaniel Scharping is a freelance science author centered in Tacoma, Washington. The conditions described in Crucial Signals are serious, but names and selected aspects have been improved.

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