An Online Wellness Magazine produced by The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth)

Lifesaving Checkup

Great grandmother was a “heart attack waiting to happen”

Frieda Frazier, an active 69-year-old great grandmother who works five days a week, gets a fitness checkup every six months at the UT Health Services clinic in the Texas Medical Center, and she is glad she does.

In June of 2017, Frazier told nurse practitioner Angela Rutherford, A.N.P.-C., that something was amiss.

“From time to time, I would feel like something was sitting on my chest. Then, I would sit down for a while and it would go away,” Frazier recalls. “Also, my heart would start racing from time to time when I exerted myself.”

Unbeknownst to her, Frazier was describing the classic warning signs of a heart attack and was well on her way to becoming one of the more than 700,000 Americans who suffer one every year.

Requesting that Frazier see a cardiologist as soon as possible, Rutherford made a follow-up phone call to Frazier to make sure an appointment had been scheduled.

When a heart disease test called an electrocardiogram uncovered two clogged arteries, Frazier was placed in a wheelchair, rolled into a local hospital and operated on the following day.

“The doctor told me that I was a heart attack waiting to happen. He said he was surprised it didn’t kill me,” says Frazier, who had double-bypass surgery.

Frazier and others have been spared heart attacks thanks to Rutherford and her colleagues at UT Health Services, a nurse-managed primary care center operated by Cizik School of Nursing at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth).

“You can tell a lot about a person’s risk of heart disease just by checking his or her vital signs, too,” says Susan Parnell, Ph.D., R.N., , director of corporate occupational health for Cizik School of Nursing. “That’s why we like to see our patients every six months.”

Staffed by nurse practitioners, registered nurses with advanced education and clinical training, the 26-year-old wellness center provides preventative, acute and chronic health care services to people of all ages.

Vital signs and heart disease

You may not know this, but when a nurse checks your blood pressure, he or she is typically counting how many breathes you take per minute.

What does this have to do with heart disease? Your heart circulates oxygen-rich blood throughout your body. Consequently, shortness of breath could be an indication that your heart muscle is not up to the task.

When you visit UT Health Services, be prepared to have a blood pressure cuff wrapped around one of your arms. The cuff is inflated and as the air is released, nurses can measure both the maximum pressure exerted on your heart while beating and the minimum pressure.

High blood pressure — now defined as anything over 130/80 mm Hg — can place excessive strain on the heart or even trigger a buildup of fat, cholesterol and other substances in arteries.

The new blood pressure guidelines released by the American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association mean that approximately 46 percent of adults have high blood pressure.

“Depending on the severity of the high blood pressure, we might suggest diet and exercise for a borderline case and medications for a serious one,” says Delorean Alexander, F.N.P.-C., a nurse practitioner at UT Health Services.

Nurses will also count your heartbeats per minute, and your resting heart rate should be between 60 and 85 heartbeats.

Many things can upset your heart rate and a short in your heart’s electrical system is one of them.  With an electrocardiogram, caregivers can pinpoint the cause of the problem and treat it.

That tiny device nurses clip to the end of one of your fingers is called a blood oxygen monitor. It measures your oxygen saturation levels, and low levels can trigger a heart attack.

There is also that dreaded scale. Most adults in the United States are overweight, which in turn increases the risk of the nation’s No. 1 killer — heart disease.

“You can often prevent heart disease in the first place through exercise and diet,” Alexander says. “That’s the best option.”

When heart disease is suspected, tests can identify the cause and determine the most appropriate treatment, she says.

Leaders in the fight

Nurses are on the frontline in the fight against heart disease. “We keep a lot of people out of the operating room,” says Parnell, noting that UT Health Services provides health care services for 35 companies in the Greater Houston area.

“At UT Health Services, I have worked side by side with our adult nurse practitioners for over 25 years. They are excellent colleagues and teachers, and I have learned a lot from them. Nurse practitioners are increasingly involved in delivering preventive and clinical services in primary care,” says George L. Delclos, M.D., Ph.D., medical director of UT Health Services.

“I find that they are especially good at patient education with an eye toward prevention, reinforcing the importance of addressing risk factors for coronary artery disease using both pharmacological and non-pharmacological approaches,” says Delclos, who oversees and collaborates closely with the nurse practitioner team.

Delclos is a professor of epidemiology, human genetics and environmental sciences at UTHealth School of Public Health.

Frazier is one of the reasons nurses typically score high in patient satisfaction surveys. “I can’t say enough about Angela and everyone with UT Health Services,” she said.

Frazier, who works in commercial insurance, was back on the job within a little more than five weeks after her surgery.

“It could have been a lot worse. I had gone on vacation in New York just before my appointment and had been walking all over the place. I’m blessed that nothing happened,” she says.

Frazier’s advice to people with the signs of heart disease? Don’t put off that visit to your health care provider. Make that appointment now.

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