|From left: Scotty Emerson, Winston-Salem Fire Department Rescue 1 Captain; Dave Folley, Forsyth County Paramedic; Anton (Tony) Spagnoletti, Firefighter; Michael Casstevens, Fire Engineer; and Joffre Schrandt, Forsyth County Paramedic.
As a Winston-Salem, NC, firefighter, Tony Spagnoletti has dedicated his career to saving the lives of others. But on the morning of November 29, 2012, the tables were turned when he suffered a massive heart attack at the age of 47. Thanks to the quick actions of his care team and fellow firefighters, Tony, a husband and father of two, is alive today to share his story.
Dr. Robert Applegate, one of Tony’s interventional cardiologists, remembers the day Tony arrived by ambulance at Wake Forest Medical Center: “One of Tony’s major heart arteries, the left anterior descending artery, was completely blocked. His heart was essentially not able to pump oxygen-rich blood. At that point there’s a high risk of either not surviving or suffering severe heart damage. There’s a reason that artery is called the widowmaker. In this case, access to the right heart care can mean life or death.”
The morning of Tony’s heart attack he woke with chest pain. The day before he was helping with a rigorous ropes training course but had not experienced fatigue or chest pain, even after climbing ladders all day, so he couldn’t make sense of the pain. But as the morning wore on, Tony’s chest pains grew progressively worse.
Also an EMT, Tony always keeps baby aspirin in his bag, his locker, and in his truck, just in case someone ever needs it. Thinking quickly, he took several of his baby aspirin, but as he bent over to put on an oxygen mask severe chest pains hit.
“I had talked to a buddy of mine who had a heart attack this summer and he told me quite simply it was the worse chest pain he had ever had,” said Tony. “You hear so many times a heart attack feels like an elephant is sitting on your chest, but that isn’t something I can relate to. What I did know is this was by far the worst pain I had ever had in my chest so I decided to go alert the rest of my crew.”
The crew took immediate action. Data from an EKG was transmitted to the emergency department so when Tony arrived, the ER team and Drs. Applegate and Sanjay Gandhi, were waiting and ready to start treatment.
When Tony arrived to the ER he was in considerable pain, but remembers the moment his heart stopped. “My eyes narrowed to a close and I entered a state of peace and quiet,” said Tony. “I thought I was dreaming. I could see a soft pink light and I was in absolutely no pain. It was only after the doctor shocked my heart that I woke up and was told my heart had quit beating.”
He was rushed to the cath lab, where Dr. Gandhi performed angioplasty to quickly access and open the blocked artery. During the procedure, Dr. Gandhi carefully guided a thin, flexible tube, called a catheter, from an artery in Tony’s wrist (the radial artery) to the arteries in his heart. Once the catheter had reached the blockage, a stent was placed to prop open the artery and restore blood flow to the heart.
“When we heard Tony was on his way and the severity of his condition, we knew we wouldn’t have much time to open his blocked artery,” said Dr. Applegate. “Without the quick action of Tony and his colleagues, coupled with the work of a dedicated cath lab and interventional cardiology team, he might not have survived.”
Just two days after the procedure, Tony was able to return home and even paid a visit to the fire station to thank his colleagues and to shake the hands of the medical team who saved his life.
“In my line of work I see a lot of death and I know how lucky I am to be alive,” said Tony. “I plan to live each day to the fullest with the people I love, my wife of 22 years and two daughters, and doing what I love, whether that’s going to work or riding my motorcycle. You can’t take anything for granted. Every day I strive to honor my personal motto of ‘living with an attitude of gratitude’.”