Just a few days ago, when asked how he was feeling, Prairie du Chien’s Mark Gilberts smiled and said, “Better than normal.” Mark has a new normal, and he credits his faith, his family and his health care team for helping him return to an active life.
On Friday, June 28, 2013, Mark was helping his mother clean up her yard after a heavy summer rain when he grew exhausted and weak, and then a tight squeezing feeling gripped the center of his chest.
Remembering that his father had a heart attack at age 53, and a second one at age 63, Mark thought he should get checked out. He arrived at the Prairie du Chien Memorial Hospital emergency room where the ER physician gave him baby aspirin and nitroglycerin. After routine tests were completed, the results showed that Mark was not having a heart attack. He was instructed to follow-up with his primary care physician, Dr. Kurt Jorgensen at the local Gundersen clinic. Subsequently, Dr. Jorgensen scheduled Mark for a stress test on July 10 in La Crosse.
The following day, Mark went to work at 3M in the shipping and receiving warehouse. The next day, he again returned to work, and after experiencing some chest pain and not feeling well, Mark left around noon to go home. He took one of the nitro pills prescribed in the hospital just a few days earlier.
On Thursday, July 4, Mark’s symptoms continued to come and go. So after some urging from his daughter-in-law Micki, Mark and his wife, Donna, traveled to Gundersen Health System in La Crosse for further evaluation. When they arrived, Mark was admitted to the hospital, and immediately, his stress test was rescheduled for the next morning.
“I failed the test,” Mark explained. “Two hours later, I was in the catheterization lab and it was discovered that the anterior artery that supplies blood to the lower portion of my heart was 99 percent blocked. I learned that there is even a name for that sort of a blockage—widow maker.
“Had that day in July gone differently, or any other day during this journey, the outcome could have been so different. It seemed unimaginable that just weeks before I was going to work every day, not giving my health a second thought. What a life-changing event.”
Mark was fortunate that he was eligible to undergo minimally invasive coronary artery bypass surgery at Gundersen in La Crosse. Dr. Prem Rabindranauth performed the surgery on Sunday, July 7. The three-hour procedure went well. Mark’s recovery also went well, and Mark was discharged from the hospital in La Crosse just four days later.
He also started rehabilitation at PdC Memorial Hospital’s cardiac rehab unit just two weeks after his surgery. He knew that he had to be committed to exercising and making diet changes to restore his health and active life.
Tammy Thompson, cardiac rehab director/exercise physiologist, remembers Mark entering rehab. “Like many entering our program, Mark was tired, fatigued and found simple daily tasks difficult to complete,” she said. “Any surgery takes the wind out of your sails, but recovery from heart surgery is a long process and weakens even the healthiest individuals to a low state of physical functioning. It’s not just about a physical recovery after heart surgery; it is a mental and behavioral recovery as well.
“A typical person recovering from heart surgery must adjust to a completely new lifestyle that involves eating healthy, exercising, managing stress, managing new medications and, for those who smoke—quitting.”
Mark said he was at ease as he began his rehab at PdCMH. “Tammy put me at ease right from the start, and Patrick (Stovey, certified exercise specialist) was a friend and classmate of our son, Brad. So I have felt comfortable from day one,” he said.
Together, Mark and the rehab staff developed a plan. His workout sessions were Monday, Wednesday and Friday for 15-20 minutes. As he gained strength and stamina, he was gradually able to tolerate exercise for over an hour.
Mark recalls vividly when he experienced a set-back in his recovery. It was a Sunday morning about five weeks after his surgery. Mark had served as lector at church. Following the service, his heart rate began to race, and his fellow parishioner, Dr. Michael Garrity of Prairie du Chien, encouraged him to get checked-out.
He returned to Prairie du Chien Memorial Hospital’s emergency room and was transferred to Gundersen in La Crosse by ambulance with a heart arrhythmia. After spending two days in the La Crosse hospital where Mark’s medications were adjusted, his heart rate returned to normal and he returned home.
He was back at rehab in PdC the very next day. Tammy and Pat once again set up a program with Mark.
On Oct. 21, Mark graduated from the Cardiac Rehab Program at PdCMH. His physician order continues to include a minimum of one half-hour of exercise, which Mark completes by walking or pedaling a stationary bike.
Mark and Donna live in Prairie du Chien. Their family includes five sons: Brian (Micki), twins Nate (Hollie) and Nick (Andrea), Jason (Erin) and Brad. They are also the proud grandparents of three grandsons and three granddaughters. Two of their sons and their families live in Prairie du Chien and three in the La Crosse area.
Mark is thankful for the support of his faith and family. “My faith was certainly tested and my family was there each and every day to offer their help. I have a renewed appreciation for life.”
In addition to returning to work full-time, Mark has devoted more time to his hobbies of fishing, deer hunting and running his model trains. He will follow up with his cardiologist in July for an annual check-up.
Mark has beaten the odds. He has made new friends in a way he didn’t expect, and he credits them with saving his life. Mark listened to his physicians and rehab staff and he has made a commitment to living a healthy life. The Gilberts continue to watch their diets by reading food labels and choosing low-sodium/low-fat products.