In mid-May 2022, Jeff and Tammy Benson from Rockingham were walking near Tammy’s sister’s beach home when Jeff felt an unusual pressure in his chest. He didn’t think much about it but still reached out to his doctor for guidance.
Good thing he did because staying quiet could have cost him his life. To help others understand the importance of being proactive about their heart health, Jeff told his story.
‘Tammy and I were in complete shock’
After feeling the chest pressure, the 67-year-old retired manufacturing manager sent a note through the FirstHealth MyChart patient portal to his primary care physician, Bo Kopynec, M.D., at FirstHealth Family Medicine in Ellerbe.
Dr. Kopynec responded right away that Jeff should stop doing anything that causes symptoms. He also recommended that Jeff go to FirstHealth Moore Regional Hospital–Richmond and have a stress test when he returned home. Also called an exercise stress test, this test shows how the heart works during physical activity and can reveal problems with the heart’s blood flow.
The stress test Jeff completed on Monday, May 23, 2022, with FirstHealth cardiologist David Shin, M.D., revealed an abnormality in Jeff’s heart. Dr. Shin recommended a heart catheterization to get a better view of his condition.
With a heart catheterization, doctors insert a catheter (a thin, hollow tube with specialized tools) through a blood vessel in the wrist or groin and guide it to the heart. A camera at the end of the catheter allows doctors to view what’s happening in and around the heart.
Jeff was transported by ambulance to Reid Heart Center, on FirstHealth Moore Regional Hospital–Pinehurst’s campus, for the heart catheterization. After the test, Dr. Shin gave Jeff and Tammy the news: three coronary (heart artery) blockages. The only way to clear them was with open heart surgery.
“Tammy and I were in complete shock,” Jeff said. “I am fairly healthy and had no bad symptoms.”
‘Let’s get it done’
Doctors advised Jeff to have the surgery right away, without even going home first. Jeff and Tammy didn’t hesitate. “Let’s get it done,” Jeff told them.
While caregivers at Reid Heart Center mobilized around Jeff to prepare him for his procedure, others helped Tammy with logistics. She got established at the Clara McLean House, a residential facility on the Moore Regional Hospital campus in Pinehurst that provides affordable, comfortable lodging for out-of-town patients, families and caregivers.
Jeff and Tammy were impressed by the efficiency they experienced before Jeff’s surgery.
“Everyone was answering questions before we even asked them,” Tammy said. “It’s like they could read our minds.”
On Thursday, May 26, 2022, FirstHealth cardiothoracic surgeon Stephen Davies, M.D., MPH, performed the triple bypass procedure. With bypass surgery, doctors replace a blocked or partially blocked heart artery with a healthy blood vessel from the leg, arm or chest. The result is improved blood flow to the heart muscle. In Jeff’s triple bypass surgery, Dr. Davies and the surgical team performed this procedure three times.
While Jeff rested and recovered in the hospital after surgery, Tammy occasionally slipped away to recharge at Clara’s House.
“It’s a beautiful home away from home,” she said. “I felt cared for and safe. If I needed anything, the staff took care of it. They removed my stress, and Jeff wasn’t worried about me driving back and forth from Rockingham, 30 minutes away. It was very affordable and just a wonderful experience.”
‘The nurse couldn’t tell if Jeff was the patient or not’
Jeff was home three days after surgery, a shorter stay than the five to six days they had anticipated. Jeff’s in-hospital physical therapists, who are specially trained to care for patients with cardiac conditions, told him that his prior fitness level contributed to his fast recovery. When a home health nurse first visited Jeff after he returned home, he walked to and answered the front door.
“The nurse couldn’t tell if Jeff was the patient or not,” Tammy laughed. “No patient had ever greeted her at the door before.”
About six weeks after his surgery, Jeff began cardiac rehabilitation at FirstHealth Fitness–Richmond near the hospital in Rockingham. In his 16-week program designed and monitored by FirstHealth certified cardiac rehab professionals, Jeff grew his cardiovascular stamina through activities such as walking on a track or treadmill and weight training. He and Tammy also have access to a FirstHealth nutrition program which they plan on taking advantage of soon.
“I’m pretty much back to normal,” he said. “I progressed so well during rehab that I want to continue exercising even more.”
Jeff’s doctors encouraged him to keep moving and stay active. Tammy said their new mantra is “motion is lotion” to keep the joints lubricated and the heart happy.
They firmly believe that exercise is medicine, with favorite activities including a one- to two-mile walk several times a week, particularly at the beach.
‘Nothing short of awesome’
Before retiring in January 2022, Tammy was the executive assistant to John Jackson, president of Moore Regional Hospital-Richmond.
Even though she had worked in the hospital system for more than 18 years, this was the first time that she or Jeff were recipients of the organization’s services to that scale.
“I knew FirstHealth is great, but now that we’re on the receiving side of it, I REALLY know,” Tammy said. “What single person at FirstHealth — from Rockingham to Pinehurst — did for Jeff and me is nothing short of awesome.”
During Jeff’s surgery and recovery, Tammy chronicled his journey on Facebook. On Aug. 10, 2022, Jeff wrote his own post, saying:
“It is through life’s greatest challenges that we realize we are not an island. We are part of a greater, caring community. I am approaching 11 weeks since my bypass surgery and am doing great, thanks to the Lord. It is the prayers, support and outpouring of love that have brought me through. Thank you to our amazing praying community, FirstHealth Richmond & Moore staff, Drs. Kopynec, Shin, & Davies, PAs Aubrey & Gary, FirstHealth Cardiac Rehab, FirstHealth Home Care, and FirstHealth Clara McLean House for the care received and prayers of the surrounding communities. I am alive today as a witness to what our God can do and how He uses each of us to touch the lives of others. You are truly angels among us. We praise God for the outpouring of love, care and support received. Blessed beyond measure. Philippians 1:3: “I thank my God every time I remember you.”
Heart care in the Sandhills
Jeff received his catheterization, surgery and recovery care at Reid Heart Center, home of FirstHealth Heart and Vascular Institute. It is the region’s first community-based, nonacademic heart hospital and repeatedly earns national acclaim. Under one roof are FirstHealth’s cardiothoracic surgery program, FirstHealth Valve Clinic, FirstHealth Heart Failure Clinic, Chest Center of the Carolinas and one of FirstHealth’s many cardiology practices in the region. Highly skilled cardiothoracic surgeons, vascular surgeons, interventional and structural cardiologists, electrophysiologists, cardiologists and support personnel collaborate to provide world-class care usually available only at large academic hospitals.
For more information about next-generation heart care in the Sandhills, visit www.firsthealth.org/heart.