Heartburn or Heart Attack?


K.C. Wash was convinced it was acid reflux when he felt a burning pain in his chest. The pain was so intense it woke him from his sleep in the middle of the night at the beginning of a June weekend.


He had attended a formal event the evening before and thought it must have been something he ate. “I had a lot of appetizers, so I thought I had indigestion,” K.C. said. “I drank some water and the pain seemed to go away. But two hours later it came back.”


By Sunday morning, the pain was again so intense that his wife, Rhonda, convinced him to consult a doctor.


Shortly after, Dr. Thomas Watson, medical director of the cardiac catheterization laboratory at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, received a call about K.C.’s symptoms.



K.C. Wash


“I said that K.C. needed to get to the emergency room right away,” Dr. Watson recalled. “Heart attack symptoms often mimic symptoms of indigestion. The symptoms described sounded more serious than acid reflux.”


In the emergency room, K.C. and his wife received shocking news. Blood tests confirmed that he had experienced a heart attack.


K.C. was rushed to the cath lab for a diagnostic angiogram. Doctors discovered a great deal of coronary artery disease and blockage. Two areas had more than 90 percent blockage. This meant that K.C. would need to have open heart surgery and a quadruple bypass.


“Never in my life had I ever had any problems that would make me think I was at risk for a heart attack,” K.C. said. “I’ve always been very active. I like hiking, skiing, mountain biking. I always thought I was in pretty good health.”


Sudden heart attack with no previous symptoms is quite common.


“The majority of heart attacks, more than 50 percent, occur suddenly, with no symptoms or warning signs,” said Dr. Watson. “K.C. had a few extra pounds on him, like most of us do, but he was very active. He was a non-smoker, he did not have diabetes or high blood pressure, and his cholesterol level was not that elevated. He didn’t have any of the standard risk factors.”


Dr. Thomas Watson, medical director of the cardiac cath lab at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, suspected that K.C.’s symptoms were indicating something serious, despite K.C.’s lack of risk factors or history of heart disease.


The most serious form of heart attack is an S-T elevation myocardial infarction or STEMI. In this situation, a heart artery is completely blocked with no flow to a portion of the heart muscle.


Symptoms of Severe Heart Attack (STEMI):

Chest pain or pressure
Pain (either sudden or gradual) that builds to a severe discomfort
Difficulty breathing
Pain that spreads to shoulders, arms, neck or jaw
Nausea and/or sweating



Dr. Watson advises that anyone who feels strong discomfort in the upper chest area should seek immediate medical attention, especially if the pain is prolonged or coming and going. “They need to get to the emergency room quickly. And we have a program to ensure that the most serious heart attack cases will get to us right away.”


That program is the Comprehensive Cardiac Care System, launched in Santa Barbara County in 2010. The program assures that paramedics can perform an EKG upon arrival and will transport people experiencing a serious heart attack or STEMI directly to a hospital that is designated as a STEMI Receiving Center. Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital has this important designation. It has the required equipment and staff to provide rapid intervention and care.


STEMI stands for S-T Elevation Myocardial Infarction (S-T refers to characteristic patterns in an electrocardiogram), which is the most serious form of heart attack. In this situation, a heart artery is completely blocked with no flow to a portion of the heart muscle.


A designated STEMI hospital is able to perform a procedure known as cardiac catheterization (also called percutaneous coronary intervention) to open blocked arteries and restore blood flow to the heart. The goal of a Comprehensive Care System is to open closed coronary heart arteries within 90 minutes of the emergency call to 911.


Rapid response saves more heart muscle from damage. “During a heart attack, time is muscle,” said Dr. Watson. “The longer the artery is blocked, the greater the amount of heart muscle damage. That increases the chances of disability and even death.”


Fortunately for K.C., he got to the emergency room in time. The surgery was a success and his recovery went well.


“After my cardiac rehab ends, doctors told me I could go back to doing all the things I loved to do,” said K.C. “I can’t wait to go golfing, kayaking and boating.”


Because of his experience, K.C. has radically changed his diet. But it’s not the thought of open heart surgery or even the 14-inch scar down his chest that makes him think twice about eating tri-tip or hamburgers.


“I don’t ever want that breathing tube down my throat again,” K.C. said with a chuckle. “Now my favorite food is fish.”


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