It started as a normal Thursday in December for Diane McGrogan. But by the end of the day, she was fighting for her life — at the same place where she worked.
McGrogan, who at the time was a social worker at Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital, was going about her usual workday when she began to feel chest pains.
At first, she wasn’t too concerned. Two days earlier, at the request of her primary care doctor, she had seen a cardiologist about the strange feeling in her chest, which she initially brushed off as indigestion. The cardiologist performed an echocardiogram — also known as a heart stress test — to check her heart rates. Everything came back normal.
“It didn’t occur to me that I could have a heart issue,” says McGrogan. “I’ve always led an active lifestyle, which includes swimming rough-water ocean races, biking and hiking.”
However, after work that Thursday evening, the odd chest pains returned once again. As she was driving to an appointment, McGrogan suddenly felt something wasn’t right.
“I had this gut feeling that I needed to turn around and get a second opinion,” says McGrogan.
The last moment McGrogan remembers is parking in the employee parking lot at Sharp Memorial Hospital, which is on the same medical campus as the Sharp hospital where she worked.
Someone leaving the hospital found McGrogan collapsed on the ground in front of the emergency room and alerted nurse Jessica Morrison inside. Morrison hurried outside, then called for help when she discovered McGrogan had no pulse. She also recognized her employee badge.
Morrison immediately began CPR until an emergency room doctor and five other nurses came to assist in lifting and placing McGrogan on a gurney. CPR continued as McGrogan was rushed inside to the emergency room.
The unsuccessful resuscitation efforts continued for 32 minutes.
Knowing every second counts for patients who experience a heart attack, Dr. Joseph Bellezzo, chief of emergency medicine at Sharp Memorial, turned to a special heart-lung bypass system known as an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) machine to help stabilize McGrogan while CPR efforts were still underway.
Sharp Memorial is one of only a handful of hospitals in the country that uses ECMO during emergency situations. Traditionally, this device is deployed during planned heart surgeries to circulate and oxygenate blood while circumventing the heart and lungs.
The process includes threading a tube through an artery near a patient’s groin and up to the heart — all done at the bedside. The ECMO machine then functions as an artificial heart and lungs by removing blood from the body, circulating it through the device and returning it to the heart, oxygenated.
“Diane probably would not have survived had she not returned to the hospital, and had not come back to Sharp Memorial,” says Dr. Bellezzo, who helped launch the hospital’s emergency ECMO program in 2011. “This is an incredible case of someone being in the right place at the exact right time.”
Once the device was in place and McGrogan was stabilized, an electrocardiogram confirmed she had a serious heart attack caused by a blockage in the main left artery of her heart. This type of heart attack is sometimes called a “widowmaker” because it is so deadly.
McGrogan was immediately taken to the hospital’s catheterization lab where a stent was placed in her blocked artery, which allowed blood flow to begin again. She was kept on the ECMO machine for a few days until her heart regained enough strength to function better.
Thankfully, McGrogan recovered without any brain damage. According to Dr. Bellezzo, the chances of someone making a full neuro-recovery is only 3 percent when a cardiac arrest occurs outside of the hospital setting, but the use of an ECMO machine inside the emergency room can significantly increase those chances.
Two months after her heart attack, McGrogan says she is getting closer to feeling like her old self again and has begun physical therapy at Sharp Memorial’s Cardiac Rehab Center. She feels immense gratitude to be alive and to the team of her own co-workers who gave her a second chance at life.
“I really feel like I have new birthday,” says McGrogan.
For the news media: To talk with Dr. Joseph Bellezzo about the ECMO program for an upcoming story, contact Erica Carlson, senior public relations specialist, at email@example.com.
This story was updated in March 2019.