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Saratoga veterinarian’s heart became a ticking time bomb

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Runner was hours away from death
Jeff Wilkin | February 18, 2017 0
Saratoga Springs veterinarian Joy Lucas smiles during a visit to the Grand Canyon.
For Dr. Joy Lucas, the time bomb began ticking on a Thursday night during the early spring of 2015.

A near-fatal event was six days away.

Lucas, who lives in Saratoga Springs, didn’t know about the personal danger. She kept lacing up her sneakers for morning four-mile runs. She continued lifting weights at the YMCA. She maintained her daily schedule and long hours at her business, Upstate Animal Medical Center on Saratoga’s Maple Avenue. She might have been thinking about the next mountain — she had already climbed 36 of the 46 high peaks in the Adirondacks.

Lucas, who had experienced some physical discomforts, finally consulted doctors the following Tuesday night. After three hours in the emergency room at Glens Falls Hospital, the then 45-year-old veterinarian received a computerized tomography (CT) scan that gave doctors a detailed look at her heart.

Lucas’ heart was the bomb. A dissecting aortic aneurysm was the problem. Doctors said without surgery, death was just a short time away.

According to the Mayo Clinic, an aortic dissection is a condition in which the inner layer of the aorta, the large blood vessel branching off the heart, tears. Blood surges through the tear, causing the inner and middle layers of the aorta to separate, or dissect. If the blood-filled channel ruptures through the outside aortic wall, aortic dissection is often fatal.

Dissections most frequently occur in men who are in their 60s and 70s.

Lucas, a native of Wellston, Ohio, knew about the condition — it had killed her father, 63-year-old Heber J. Lucas, in 1992. A lot of people in the Glens Falls emergency room began talking about the condition once the CT scan was complete in Glens Falls.

“All the doctors got paged back to my room, and that’s when they told me I needed emergency surgery and I would die without it,” Lucas said. “I requested a second opinion and they told me if I moved, I’d die. And that was my second opinion.”

Lucas will tell her story about survival at Saturday’s annual Capital Region Heart Ball, sponsored by the Albany chapter of the American Heart Association and held at the Hall of Springs in Saratoga Springs. The story will come with advice that could prevent a rushed helicopter ride, open heart surgery and membership in the “zipper club.”

Nearly two years after the ordeal, Lucas is in excellent health. She talked in her office last week, dressed in a heather gray shirt with long red sleeves and a silver heart emblazoned on the front. She wore dark gray stretch pants, reddish-colored boots, a Russian-style fur hat — fake fur — and bunches of feathers in braided strands of brunette hair, bunches of earrings and bunches of bracelets.

She played with her dogs, Corgi chihuahua Possum and chihuahua Britton (or Dr. B) — named for the surgeon who saved her life — and talked about the seven days in March two years ago.

Here’s what happened, day by day:
Thursday, March 19: Lucas reaches to open a drawer — looking for pajamas — when she feels a circular pressure in the middle of her back. It feels like a vitamin pill has become lodged in her back. She does some laundry and cleans litter boxes for her four cats.

Friday, March 20: Lucas rises early, runs four miles, works eight hours at Upstate and goes out for dinner and dancing. She comes home and feels fine.

Saturday, March 21: Lucas tries to run, but has to call it off. She doesn’t feel well and her back hurts. She works eight hours and comes home to take a nap — something she rarely does.

“In all honesty, I thought to myself at about 7 o’clock, that night, ‘Could I be having a heart attack?’” Lucas said. “I fed all my animals, left notes out, came here to the clinic, did my own EKG (electrocardiogram) and blood pressure, which were both normal, so I convinced myself that I was fine. It was just my back, so I went home. I was very restless, I just couldn’t get comfortable.”

Sunday, March 22: The animal doctor still feels lousy. Still, she packs dogs Possum and Ouzz — a Great Dane — into her car and drives to Lake George. All three walk the village for the afternoon.

Monday, March 23: The day starts great. Lucas runs her four miles, puts in 11 hours at Upstate and lifts weights with her boyfriend at the YMCA for 2 1/2 hours. A problem develops at the “Y” — she feels so much pressure around her neck it feels like someone is choking her. She falls off one of the weight machines and finishes the workout. Once home, she spends more time exercising on her elliptical machine and has a glass of red wine before bed.

Tuesday, March 24: Pressure around her neck and a headache convinces Lucas to visit her friend and chiropractor, Dr. Greg Slywka, whose practice is also located on Maple Avenue. Her father’s heart condition is discussed.

Slywka thinks Joy’s physical problems could be heart-related and says Lucas should go to the emergency room right away. After the examination, Lucas walks to her car and Slywka follows her. He tells her if he sees her car in the Upstate parking lot later in the day, he will take her the ER himself. Lucas finishes her day and, after checking local emergency rooms to see which one is not busy, prepares for a drive to Glens Falls Hospital at 7:30 p.m.

Now, Lucas is getting a little nervous.

“I was in my car pulling out of the driveway,” she said. “I got out and came back in to kiss my dogs goodbye. There was something in my head that told me something was going on.”

At the hospital, Lucas passes the initial triage check-up and waits three hours for further examination. It looks like the hospital is busy, after all.

Surgery survivor offers tips for heart health
“I was just getting ready to leave to come home because I had five surgeries scheduled here the next day,” Lucas said. “When they called my name, I said to my boyfriend, ‘Do you just want to go?’ And he was like, ‘No, we’re here, we’re going to go.’”

She dances around the room before the CT scan. It’s not the right thing to do, but it’s the last fun Lucas will have in awhile. Once the CT results are in, the real drama starts.

Even though Lucas has not been feeling great, she is shocked to hear an ailing heart has become a matter of life and death. Dr. Peter Ferrera, the emergency room physician, doesn’t even have much time to debate the issue.

“I said, ‘Look at me, there’s no way I can be that sick,’” Lucas said. “And he goes, ‘We don’t understand how you’re still alive. You should have died on Thursday or Friday or Saturday, Sunday or Monday. But you need emergency surgery and you don’t have time to be driven. You need a helicopter so we need to find a helicopter and we need to find a doctor.’

“At this time it was close to midnight, 1 o’clock in the morning,” Lucas said, “and it was, ‘We need to find a doctor who can actually do this surgery in the middle of the night.’”

Lucas has a 10-percent chance of survival. She refuses sedation until the last minute because she has to think of many things. “I had to come right with the world,” she said.

Wednesday, March 25: Dr. Lewis Britton III, cardiac surgeon, is on call that night and Lucas goes into surgery at Albany Medical Center at around 2 a.m. An eight-person team works on the operation and Lucas is out — and alive — 10 hours later.

Lucas woke later in the afternoon and thought she heard thunder. She demanded pen and paper to write a note and make sure someone could get a “thunder coat,” a garment that helps anxious dogs cope with thunderstorms, on her dog Ouzz.

“Nobody was paying any attention to me because it wasn’t thundering,” Lucas said. “We were in a basement and they were like, ‘What is she talking about?’ It was my chest tubes, the sucking noise of my chest tubes is what I was hearing. I thought that was thunder, I was thinking of my dogs first, as always.”

Britton said the surgery for a dissecting aortic aneurysm is common at Albany Medical Center.

“We’re a referral center for it,” Britton said. “We probably do somewhere in the range of 12 to 15 operations for this problem a year, at least. We recently looked at our last five years and we’d done 90 in the five, six year-period previously. For this type of a thing, we would be considered a relatively high-volume center for the country.”

In Lucas’ case, Britton said, surgeons used a tube made of Dacron for the heart repair.

“It’s similar to the materials used in no-iron clothing and stuff which is made in a tubular shape and we also replaced her aortic valve as well,” Britton said. “We had to put the arteries that feed blood to her heart back into the tube and plug all the arteries that went back to her arms and to her brain back into the tube as well. It’s an involved operation.”

If people have histories of aortic aneurysms in their families, they must talk to their physicians about what could be a hereditary condition.

“We follow a whole lot of people with so-called small aortic aneurysms or enlarged aortas that don’t ever come to an operation and certainly don’t ever have the emergent problem that she did,” Britton said. “I think certainly in her particular case, this was an inherited trait, it was a family thing.”

Such a condition, Britton added, may not be prevented by eating properly and exercising regularly.

“There are some things that it’s programmed in your genes and if it’s going to be a problem, it’s going to be a problem,” Britton said. “There’s not, at least in this stage of development of gene therapy and whatnot, that we can do much about.”

Britton added that Lucas knew she had a family link to the condition. She did not know she had an aneurysm.

“It’s a two-edge sword,” Britton said. “You don’t want people out there worrying about things they don’t need to be worried about, you don’t want people going out and having tests they don’t need to have because the return is so small and all tests carry with them some risk.”

Lucas recovered quickly. She went home on Monday, March 30 and was supposed to be out of work for three months. She returned in five weeks.

Two years later, Lucas can show part of the long scar that has become her admission into the “zipper club,” whose roster is full of people who have survived open heart surgery. At 47, she is still running, still lifting. She has never smoked and has maintained a vegetarian diet for the past 35 years, but has taken steps to live even healthier. She has cut back on wine, and drastically cut back on coffee — “Just two cups now, not 15,” she said. Tequila is out.

“I feel a responsibility to take care of myself because of people like Dr. Britton and the whole team at Albany Med did so much, it would be disrespectful of them to not honor my body,” Lucas said.

She believes her animal clinic was a great motivator to recover from surgery during that spring of 2015.

“If I didn’t have this job, this lifestyle, my recovery would have been different,” Lucas said. “I felt so needed, I wanted to come back so bad. It really put the wind under me and the fire, to want to get back. This is my business.”

Her business now also includes talking about the medical drama, and the feeling that comes when someone plays a one-on-one match against Death — and wins.

“Gratitude, I think, is the best word,” Lucas said. “To me, it’s just the sheer daily gratitude to have the ability to be cold or get rained on or to experience happiness and sadness — just gratitude for life as it is.

“I didn’t just get lucky to be alive, I got my life back,” Lucas added, tears in her eyes. “For what happened to me and the way that it happened and the extensive nature of what happened to me, most people don’t get to go back to running. The first day I went for a run I cried, just because I could.”

Reach Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 395-3124 or at wilkin@dailygazette.com or@jeffwilkin1 on Twitter. His blog can be found here.
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