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Combating the No. 1 killer through awareness and prevention

Jennifer Stafford, RN, is spreading heart disease awareness and care


Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: ADAM WICKHAM - Jennifer Stafford, RN, at the Chest Pain Center at Legacy Meridian Park Medical Center. Stafford has worked for years to increase heart disease awareness and increase the quality of heart care at Meridian Park. Jennifer Stafford’s father was 58 when he died of a heart attack — his second heart attack. She was in nursing school at the time, and was struck by the caring and loving manner in which his nurse dealt with him and the rest of the family.

“That’s who I want to be,” Stafford told herself. “That’s the nurse I’m going to be and I’m going to start today.”

So began a long medical career with a decades long focus of spreading heart disease awareness. An RN in the Critical Care Unit at Legacy Meridian Park Medical Center, Stafford has been instrumental in implementing processes at the hospital, some of those used at its Chest Pain Center. The center, which she helped create, has dramatically expedited and streamlined the care of patients exhibiting intermediate signs of cardiac stress, Stafford said. It all started with expediting care for patients with extreme heart problems, and realizing they needed to have a system for the people in the middle.

Before putting these systems in place, when Meridian Park received a patient who needed immediate heart intervention or open heart surgery, they were sent to a hospital downtown. Since that situation wasn’t ideal, Meridian Park was looking for ways to change that practice, and participated in a study out of Johns Hopkins University to determine if it was safe and effective to perform emergent interventions — removing clots in arteries and putting in stents to open them up — without cardiac surgery backup.

“The results (showed) it’s absolutely safe, reasonable and the best practice to do these emergent interventions whether you have cardiac backup or not for open heart surgery,” she said. “That was the big fear, and it turned out it’s not a reasonable fear. Now, we’re providing this expedited care here. Because we can do that level of intervention, we are a resource for the whole region.”Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: ADAM WICKHAM - Jennifer Stafford has been instrumental in implementing heart health awareness and prevention through her work with Meridian Park and the surrounding areas.

Streamlining that process means working and communicating with ambulance medics to get everything ready at the hospital before the patient arrives. Doing so saves time and valuable heart muscle cells.

“The (catheterization laboratory) team comes while you’re still getting wrapped up and put in the ambulance — you’ve barely touched the (emergency room) doors and everybody knows what to do,” said Stafford, 54.

The cath lab is where the heart can be monitored and examined, and where clots are removed and stents inserted. At Meridian Park, said Stafford, it often takes less than 15 minutes to get the stent in from the time a patient goes through the lab doors. The average time for the whole process, including the ambulance ride, is under 60 minutes, compared to the national average of 90 minutes, said Stafford.

“We’ve been working on this since 2004, getting this team together and every month (looking at) process improvements,” she said. “Where else can we shave minutes?”

By expediting the care of patients going through big heart attacks (also called STEMI — ST Segment Elevation Myocardial Infarction) and closely monitoring those experiencing moderate or intermediate symptoms, Stafford said they’re able to make sure that no one falls through the cracks.

This is important, she said, especially for women who for decades were ignored when it came to heart disease. Heart attacks were initially thought to be an “old man’s disease,” so when women came into the ER complaining of chest pain, they were dismissed and sometimes given a Valium to calm down. This went on for years, Stafford said. It’s only been in the last couple decades that women became part of the research process for heart disease, and it’s recently been determined that women often experience heart attack symptoms differently than men.

“It wasn’t until 1999 that the American Heart Association actually published guidelines for heart care for women,” Stafford said, noting that 43 percent of the time, women don’t even have chest pain.

Where men often experience one big heart episode, something that would be hard to mistake for anything but a heart attack, women tend to have prodromal symptoms. This means they might have chest pain for a few minutes one day, then again a week or two later, and again the week after that. So women often carry on with life until the problem becomes too big too ignore or it’s too late. One of Stafford’s missions is to spread this awareness, because heart disease is the number one killer of both men and women in the United States. Even though Stafford was diagnosed with breast cancer and went through treatment four years ago, heart disease is still her biggest passion.

“Cancer is profound. It’s big and important. There is a lot of research and money being focused on that,” Stafford said. “But where’s the gap?”

As Stafford sees it, the gap is in heart disease awareness and prevention, and it’s why she travels to middle schools teaching students about risk factors and how to minimize them, telling them that sitting is the disease of their generation.

“Here are the risk factors for heart disease: smoking, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol,” she said. “Your body so wants to do better and do the right thing, so when you start taking little steps, they lead to more.”

After Stafford’s father had his first heart attack, he didn’t make any lifestyle modifications. He ate the same fatty foods and sat on the couch smoking the same cigarettes.

“If he hadn’t done those things, he might still be alive today,” she said, “They say that even if you do these bad things, but then you stop, (problems) can actually recede.”

Seeing what her father went through was what made Stafford choose the career focus that she did. It’s why she is relentless in her mission to keep as many people as possible from dying of heart disease when it could have been prevented.

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