Firefighter survives on-duty 'widow-maker'
NC Firefighter Spagnoletti suffered a major heart attack while on duty
By Jennifer Young
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Winston-Salem firefighter Tony Spagnoletti has 27 years of experience, but he wasn't expecting the kind of call he got last week — a close one — from "the widow-maker."
Spagnoletti suffered a major heart attack last Thursday while on duty at Fire Station 7 on Country Club Road. He returned Thursday, dressed in his Honor Guard uniform, to say thank you to his fellow fire-crew members and to EMS paramedics for helping save his life.
He also had a message for the public: Keep your baby aspirin handy.
Spagnoletti, 47, said he thought he was taking care of his health.
A native ofWisconsin, he is a nonsmoker, and he generally eats right, though he did admit, "I like my breakfast Southern biscuits and gravy."
He weighs 190 pounds and is 5 feet, 11 inches tall. He said he's in the top group for his age in physical fitness at the fire department and always receives good reports in his annual medical exams. There's no family history of heart disease, either.
"You can be healthy as an ox and have something like this happen," Spagnoletti said.
The "something" for Spagnoletti started about 6:30 a.m. as he was wrapping up an overnight shift at the station. He had felt some chest pain when he woke up, but didn't really think it was a heart attack. Just in case, though, he had taken some baby aspirin, which keeps platelets from sticking together in a blood vessel.
'I was in denial to some extent,' said Spagnoletti, who like other Winston-Salem firefighters, has training as an emergency medical technician.
The pain was becoming severe, though, and Spagnoletti decided to call his boss, who was still in the fire department's sleeping quarters on the second floor of the station.
'He was white as the walls, holding on to his chest,' Capt. Scottie Emerson recalled on Thursday.
Emerson gave Spagnoletti two squirts of nitroglycerine under his tongue, while Fire Engineer Michael Casstevens got an oxygen mask for Spagnoletti. Emerson also took the station out of service as it dealt with its own emergency.
Paramedics Joffre Schrandt and David Folley were on U.S. 421 North, only five to six minutes away, when they got the 911 call. They were able to interpret an EKG to determine that Spagnoletti was indeed having a heart attack, and relay his results to doctors who would be waiting in the emergency room at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center.
In the ambulance, Schrandt remembers telling Folley to take it easy as they took the big bump over the railroad track near the Forsyth Humane Society on Miller Street. 'Transportation is an art,' Schrandt explained. 'What you feel when you're up front driving is accentuated when you're in the back trying to do some delicate procedures.' Within about 15 minutes of his attack, Spagnoletti was at the hospital. He went into cardiac arrest in the emergency room, but personnel there used a defibrillator to revive him. He was taken quickly to the catheterization lab, where doctors removed a 2-inch clot from his blocked left anterior descending artery - the so-called 'widow maker.' A week later, Spagnoletti isn't sure when he'll be able to return to work at the fire station. He has to undergo cardiac rehabilitation and 'eat a little bit healthier diet - rabbit food,' he said. His wife, a physician's assistant, will help see to that.
Spagnoletti is sure, though, of his faith in God and his gratitude to the people who saved his life.
Schrandt's response: 'It was a complete team effort, a complete team effort.' The paramedics emphasized that time is of the essence in responding to a heart attack, and encouraged people to call 911 if they're experiencing symptoms, even if they're not sure it's really their heart.
'If it isn't anything, there's not a whole lot of loss,' Schrandt said.
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