Going to hospital

My husband has heart problems and I am told that he is 'at risk'. If he had a heart attack, what actually happens after hospital admission?

If your husband has a heart attack at home, an assessment is usually made in the ambulance. He will then go to the hospital casualty department; some hospitals have a 'fast-track' system and he would go straight to the Coronary Care Unit (CCU) or for an angiogram.

The hospital doctor will take blood to look for evidence of damage (enzymes). Contents of the muscle cells leak out when there is damage. They help the doctor determine the size of the attack. Routinely now, another chemical test for troponin is performed; this is very sensitive at identifying damage - doctors talk of 'trop positive' (damage) or 'trop negative' (no damage). A recording of the electrical activity of your husband's heart (ECG or EKG, see Chapter 3) will be taken at least once and will usually confirm the diagnosis and help identify the precise area of damage. Eight out of 10 heart attacks show on the first ECG and it is after this that clot buster drugs or angioplasty are offered. A chest X-ray will be taken to see if there is any fluid in his lungs.

Your husband will probably be given medication (morphine) to relieve pain and limit complications. Tablets or injections may be used to reduce fluid in his lungs (diuretics) and stabilise his heartbeats if there is any irregularity causing concern.

There are three sorts of medications which are most often used (unless there are specific reasons why they should not be given) because they protect the heart, improve survival and reduce complications (see the section Treatment in Chapter 3).

• Aspirin thins the blood to help prevent further clots. He will be able to take this in the soluble form, 75 mg/day, and will probably take it for the rest of his life.

• Beta-blockers are medications that slow the heart down and reduce blood pressure. They protect the heart from too much physical and mental stress. Because these medications can improve your husband's chances of survival after a heart attack, they will be probably be given long term. Commonly used preparations are atenolol, bisoprolol, propranolol, metoprolol and timolol.

• Angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors or ACE inhibitors help some people survive. Fewer people on these medications have heart failure and they help reduce the heart's tendency to enlarge after a heart attack. Commonly used tablets are captopril, lisinopril, enalapril, ramipril and perindopril.

In the coronary care unit (CCU), rest is crucial to allow his heart to recover. Visiting by immediate family only should be brief as he will often tire easily. Young children can often be upset by the visit so care is needed if they come to see him. A brief visit to see that 'daddy' or 'mummy' is okay may benefit both child and parent, but the child must be fully prepared for the sight of the equipment, which can be daunting. It may be better if a nurse takes the child into the unit in a matter of fact way; this can reduce the natural tendency for the family to become emotional at a time of great stress.

In the CCU meals are light, as heavy meals can increase the heart's work by 20%, and rest is really what is needed. Your husband will find fluids, soups and salads are the easiest options.

As part of life in the CCU, there are routine ECGs, chest X-rays and blood tests, all designed to monitor his progress.

My husband went straight for an angioplasty even in his outdoor clothes - why did they rush?

The paramedics or casualty staff will have diagnosed the heart attack and the best chance of saving the heart muscle from damage is to open the blocked artery as quickly as possible. This is known as a primary angioplasty and represents the state-of-the-art management. Time is of the essence so speed saves lives.

My husband has gone into a Coronary Care Unit. What will happen when he returns to the general ward?

Most people leave coronary care after 24-48 hours. Everyone is an individual, not a statistic, so some leave sooner than others. Once your husband is back on the cardiac or general ward, a restful atmosphere is still essential and visitors should be restricted to avoid fatigue. Fear and ignorance are the biggest problems at this stage, so it is very important for him to fully understand what is going on. Questions need answers, so do not suffer in silence worrying about something. The key to your husband's recovery will be for him and his family to participate actively in the rehabilitation process. Do not keep any facts from his family and friends, as this leads to emotional charades at a time when maximum support is needed.

He will normally leave hospital after 7-10 days, but your husband may be kept in a little longer if his doctor thinks that he needs longer to recover. During the recovery period he will be encouraged to increase his exercise gradually, and he will be given advice on how to live and eat healthily.

Just before discharge from hospital, or within 6 weeks of a heart attack, an exercise ECG on a treadmill will be arranged for him. This is designed to rule out any further heart trouble and allows the doctor and your husband to judge how well his recovery is progressing.

What drugs should a heart attack patient be taking on leaving hospital?

Drugs may be used to protect from further events and these are:

• aspirin or clopidogrel, or both;

• statins;

• beta-blockers;

ACE inhibitors or AII antagonists.

He should also be taking written information explaining what has happened and what to do next. An appointment with cardiac rehabilitation is strongly recommended. Specific drugs may be used to control symptoms, such as diuretics (water tablets) to relieve fluid retention and breathlessness. All heart attack patients should understand what the medication is for - if unsure, always ask.

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