From the Garden to the ER: Michael’s Heartfelt Journey

By Shannon Dillon

Within three hours, a day of gardening for Michael Lawrence ended with unsettling health diagnosis. 

Last August, Lawrence was in his backyard gardening–one of his favorite hobbies. He had just planted a Texas sage and walked to the front driveway to get a bag of mulch out of his car. 

Even though he had made the walk from the driveway to the backyard countless times at his Woodlands-area home of the past 20 years, this time was different.

Each step was grueling and left Lawrence laboring to breathe. He tossed the large bag of mulch onto the ground, thinking the weight of it was the source of his struggle. But his shortness of breath and chest pain didn’t subside.

Watching from the inside of their home, his wife, Kathryn, called for him to come inside and rest. Kathryn used an at-home device to take Lawrence’s blood pressure. It was elevated. She called their daughter Kristine, who is a nurse practitioner in an emergency room. After learning his symptoms, Kristine told her dad to get to an ER immediately

“I went to the hospital somewhat begrudgingly,” Lawrence said. “I hadn’t even had a chance to take a shower. I had dirt all over me and I thought, ‘Ok, I’ll go to the ER because it will be an in-and-out visit.’ I thought the doctor would write me a prescription for the pain and I’d get to go home, rest, and then return to gardening.”

But things didn’t turn out that way.

At Memorial Hermann The Woodlands Medical Center, Lawrence was treated immediately. Nurses and technicians administered tests and physicians quickly reviewed the results. David Kuten, MD, a cardiologist affiliated with Memorial Hermann The Woodlands, consulted and recommended a heart catheter to diagnose and determine the next steps of treatment for Lawrence.

Then, the moment of truth –Lawrence had a 99 percent blockage in his left main artery and would need bypass surgery very soon. The realization of his health crisis suddenly hit him – he had had a heart attack.

It was not going to be an in-and-out hospital visit, after all. He was then scheduled for open heart surgery the following morning. 

Finding Comfort in Discomfort

The shortness of breath and chest pain Lawrence experienced while gardening in August were familiar symptoms he’d felt months prior to the open heart surgery. 

“I ignored the symptoms,” Lawrence recalled. “When my wife and I were in Aruba earlier this year, I didn’t feel 100 percent like myself. I had shortness of breath when walking and getting into the car. I tried going to the beach to relax, and even going to bed early, but I was always very tired.” 

To Lawrence, the urgency of needing open heart surgery came as somewhat of a surprise.

The 67-year-old had been doing everything right – staying physically active, eating healthy meals, and engaging in activities he loved such as gardening, golfing, and traveling. He knew the importance of listening to his body, especially given his family history of heart related issues – his mother’s life was saved 15 years prior when she underwent surgery following an aortic dissection, and his brother had triple bypass surgery. 

The shortness of breath was a nagging discomfort that he shared with Steven Chon, MD, his primary care physician. Dr. Chon referred Lawrence to Christopher Nguyen, MD for further testing. A week before his open heart surgery, Lawrence underwent a series of tests that are typically indicators of underlying health concerns.

But, EKGs, stress tests, and bloodwork results all came back okay. Given his family history, Dr. Nguyen recommended Lawrence have a heart catheter placed and the procedure was scheduled for the following two weeks. But, Lawrence received that catheterization sooner than expected when he was admitted to the hospital. For some time, Lawrence had been forcing himself to live with the uncomfortable symptoms that impacted his day-to-day activities. He thought finding a semblance of comfort in his aches and managing the symptoms would be enough.

“I never thought a heart attack would happen to me despite my family history of heart issues,” said Lawrence. “The shortness of breath was my only recurring symptom and I thought I could manage it with rest and pain medication. Now I realize that the nagging shortness of breath was a warning sign of a heart attack.”

Overwhelming Gratitude and a New Outlook

Lawrence now goes to physical therapy three times a week, takes short walks around his neighborhood, and is back in his garden, but being careful not to push himself too hard. It’s been months since his open heart surgery, but the thought of the kindness of the staff and physicians he encountered at Memorial Hermann The Woodlands still brings tears to his eyes.

“The people who work there are some of the finest, caring people,” Lawrence said. “I can’t praise them high enough for all they did for me from the moment I stepped foot into the ER to the moment I was discharged home. I’ll never forget the nurses who cared for me in the ICU. And the young lady who encouraged me to continue to use my spirometer and follow all of my doctors’ instructions when I got home so I could have full capacity of my lung function. She said, ‘Do it for your family, if not for yourself.’ That stuck with me.”

Lawrence now encourages family and strangers alike with lifesaving advice: Never ignore health symptoms and speak with a doctor soon about health concerns..  

“I’m so grateful for Memorial Hermann,” Lawrence said. “They cared for me every step of the way, kept me informed and made me feel like I was one of their own family members. Thanks to the Memorial Hermann team, I’ll be able to walk my youngest daughter, Kelly, down the aisle in the spring.” 

Recognizing the Symptoms of Heart Attack

Individuals may experience all or one of the symptoms of a heart attack, so it’s important to know the signs and seek medical assistance as soon as possible. The American Heart Association says the warning signs of a heart attack include:

  • Chest discomfort
  • Shortness of breath
  • Pain in one or both arms, back, neck, jaw or stomach
  • Nausea, indigestion or heartburn 
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness
  • Cold sweat
  • Fatigue

To learn more about the conditions treated by Memorial Hermann Heart & Vascular Institute visit heart.memorialhermann.org or schedule an appointment with a cardiologist near you.

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