Kalispell cardiac unit earns top recognition

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Time is muscle.

That’s the maxim used often by the cardiovascular medical community, especially when a team launches into a time-sensitive, life-saving surgery.

“When someone starts having a heart attack, the longer you wait to get that blood vessel open, the more heart muscle that dies. There are numerous goals we are looking to meet,” said Nathan Hall, an interventional cardiologist with Rocky Mountain Heart and Lung in Kalispell.

According to Hall, staff with the cardiovascular unit strive to stay within a 90-minute time frame from the moment a heart attack patient gets to the catheterization lab, where diagnostic imaging equipment is used to visualize arteries and chambers of the heart, to the time the identified problem artery is surgically opened.

The fast-paced nature of cardiovascular health care is something that distinguishes it from many other medical practices. And since the inception of Kalispell Regional’s cardiac unit in 2001, the hospital has provided what those on the cardiovascular team describe as a “tremendous and vital service to the Valley” — an offering they say one may be hard-pressed to find in many corners of the country, rural Montana included.

The program’s accomplishments were most recently highlighted by the hospital’s receipt of four achievement awards from the American Heart Association and the American Stroke Association. The awards were given for multiple accomplishments, including efforts to reduce hospital readmissions for heart-failure patients, for meeting criteria and standards of performance for quick and appropriate treatment through emergency procedures to re-establish blood flow to blocked arteries, and much more.

Amanda Cahill with the American Heart Association said the data evaluated for the awards, which is voluntarily submitted by hospitals, is extensive, and certain benchmarks must be achieved in order to receive recognition.

“Hospitals that achieve awards are actively monitoring their patient care and making sure that they are doing their best by following medical guidelines,” Cahill said. “Basically, it’s about giving the right care at the right time to save lives.”

Hall, who also performs catheterization procedures at Kalispell Regional, said the success of the program very much so relies on a sweeping collaboration of staff members ranging from surgeons, to nurses, to emergency responders.

“It’s a really critical multi-faceted process to receive one of these awards,” Hall said. “It requires EMS, it requires the outside hospitals, our emergency department staff and doctors, the cath lab staff, and all the post-procedural care and all of that is evaluated in these types of awards. There are so many people involved at so many different levels.”

According to Jason Wojciechowski, director of surgical services at Kalispell Regional, the cardiovascular department is one that sees very little turnover, creating a tight-knit community of medical employees that helps further the department’s mission.

“It’s the same team day in and day out so everyone really knows each other and that bond helps grow a program like this and make it so successful,” Wojciechowski said.

As for why Hall, Wojciechoswki and others chose to be a part of one of the most challenging avenues in medicine: their passions lie with cardiac services and the procedures often warrant “instant-gratification” as a medical professional.

“We get to see a difference quickly. The patient usually goes from looking almost gray and very sick to becoming pretty stable pretty quick and there aren’t too many places in medicine where you get to experience that kind of recovery,” Hall said.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in Montana, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hall said this is due to many factors, including the state’s sizable population of smokers and high depression rate. He said both not only make one more susceptible to heart disease, but can impact recovery as well.

Experts say one of the biggest mistakes one can make when they think they may be experiencing a heart attack, which can begin as chest tightness and pain or something less obvious such as shortness of breath, is not call 911.

They say with heart failure, every minute counts. And a call can not only send an ambulance, but also alerts the cardiac team to prepare for treatment the minute an incoming patient arrives.

Reporter Kianna Gardner can be reached at 758-4439 or kgardner@dailyinterlake.com

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