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Woman to meet EMS providers who saved her life twice

After having her heart revived twice from a heart attack, Andrea Velez is now raising awareness in relatively young women about heart disease

By Pam McLoughlin
New Haven Register

MILFORD, Conn. — Andrea Burtis Velez, 39, feels lucky to be alive and can’t wait to meet the three American Medical Response employees who saved her life — twice.

Velez, who doesn’t smoke or drink, and describes herself as “slightly overweight,” is also working to raise awareness in relatively young women about the heart condition that almost took her life too soon on April 7.

The mother of two still tears up when recalling that day.

It started as a normal day. She took daughter, Alexandrea, who was an eighth-grader at East Shore Middle School to school, but after she got to work at New Haven Dental Group where she is a dental assistant, Velez had what she thought was heartburn. She dismissed the symptom as having pizza the night before.

Velez said she didn’t have arm pain, or a headache, no breathing problems, no sweats. And she had just recently had a physical, so she wasn’t thinking heart attack.

Velez decided she was going to get soup to make herself feel better, but a periodontist she works for, Ivelina Dean, took one look at Velez, told her to lay on the floor and she called 911.

“She was me angel.” she said of Dean

Another co-worker, Maureen Mule, laid beside Velez to distract and comfort her.

AMR arrived within five minutes, Velez said, adding she was lucky it wasn’t a day she was working in the Branford office because it’s so much farther from Yale New Haven Hospital.

Velez told them she had heartburn and a lot of work to do, but after hooking her up to a diagnostic, the AMR crew told told her, “Ma’am, you’re having a heart attack.”

“I started thinking ‘My kids, my kids.’” All she could think of is that she hadn’t had a chance to say goodbye.

Then came her close brush with death.

She sat on the stretcher and her heart stopped. They did an emergency procedure to get her heart beating and then she lost vision on the way downstairs and her heart stopped again once they got downstairs. The AMR crew got her heart beating again and got her to the hospital just in time.

Once at the hospital they learned her arteries were not clogged, but rather her right artery was torn and her left artery had a tiny tear that couldn’t be fixed in surgery.

Velez had suffered from a condition called spontaneous coronary artery dissection — or SCAD — in which a sudden tear occurs in the layers of one or more arteries to the heart.

The condition, Velez said, is rare and can hit at any age, but it’s among the heart conditions that strikes younger women like herself.

Velez, who said the progesterone in birth controls pills may have been a factor in her case, wants to spread awareness of the condition to women and has ordered fliers and literature to do so in the community.

Velez spent a week in the intensive care unit, was on bad rest for eight weeks and has been hospitalized 11 times in eight months, in part because they had to push her sternum to save her life and in part because the trauma caused a mild inflammation of her lungs.

Velez said she found a cardiologist she loves, Dr. Costin Nicolae Ionescu, who has taken a lot of time to know her rare condition in and out and she is undergoing cardiac rehab. She said Ionescu and her primary care doctor, Dr. Lisa Puglisi, have worked closely together for a positive outcome. Velez is back at work on light duty and still recovering.

Since that day Velez has hoped to meet the AMR crew who restored her life and is planning a meeting in late October when her son is home from college.

Velez said she just wants to hug them and say, “Thank you,” as does her family.

“I want to thank them for acting so quick,” said daughter Alexandrea, now a freshman at Joseph A. Foran High School.

A spokesperson for AMR said members of the three-member crew who saved Velez, two EMTs and an operations supervisor, have agreed to meet with her. Such requests are often made and usually welcome, the spokesperson said.

“When they save somebody’s life it’s an incredible experience for them. They are excited about it,” the spokesperson said.

“I just want to have the opportunity to say thank you,” Velez said. “I wouldn’t be here today, if it wasn’t for them and Dr. Dean.”

For 20 minutes during the ordeal her husband, Esteban, of 25 years thought his wife had died because he couldn’t get through to the hospital after receiving a message.

Her son, Esteban Velez Jr., got the call in the middle of finals at St. John University and came home. He helped his mom through her recovery all summer and her mother came to stay for weeks. Velez said she was also touched by the outpouring of support from co-workers and friends who cooked meals and helped her family in other ways. These days as she continues to recover, Esteban does the cooking.

Velez said that overall she is a changed woman who realizes the house doesn’t have to look perfect every minute and the little things in life are to be savored.

“Now I wake up every day asking, ‘How am I going to make the world a better place today?”’ Velez said. “I’m religious and I do feel God has a plan for me. I appreciate everything in life.”

Among her top answers is to bring awareness to other women about SCAD. Once she receives hand out literature, Velez will bring it to the public and is already planning events.

“I’m just happy. I appreciate things,” now, she said.

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