CSM Fitness Instructor Credits a Tiny Aspirin and MedStar St. Mary’s Hospital for Saving Her Life

Deanna Rothstein isn’t someone you’d expect to see being wheeled back for open-heart surgery.

As a fitness instructor, the Leonardtown woman is focused on wellness in her personal and professional life. She is positive, ambitious, and enthusiastic about health.

“My passion is living well and educating others to help them feel stronger: physically, mentally, and emotionally,” Deanna shared. “It is what my inspirational parents taught me, it’s what I teach my kids, and hopefully it rubs off on others.”

Deanna works in the Wellness and Aquatics Center at the College of Southern Maryland, where she is the aquatics and community services coordinator and has taught personal wellness, fitness, and nutrition classes there. The mom of two maintains a healthy weight and exercises regularly. She leads spin classes, too.

But in June 2018, Deanna had a heart attack—shortly before undergoing surgery to treat thyroid cancer at age 48.

Deanna’s experience began at an unrelated appointment with Patricia Wehner, MD, FACS, a surgeon and attending physician in the MedStar Breast Health Program in Leonardtown. Noticing her blood pressure was unusually high, Dr. Wehner’s team recommended she go to the Emergency Department (ED) at nearby MedStar St. Mary’s Hospital for evaluation.

Instead, Deanna promised she would track her own readings over the weekend and go in if the numbers climbed. They didn’t. Following up with primary care on Monday, an EKG showed nothing abnormal.

“I had the thyroid issue already on my plate and was busy, like all of us,” said Deanna, who has a teenage daughter and 21-year-old son. “I didn’t think much more about it.”

A month later, she woke up feeling strange.

“I’m very attuned to my body. I knew something wasn’t right,” Deanna shared. “I thought maybe I was having a stroke. I had light chest and arm pains, and decided to take my blood pressure.”

Deanna’s reading was 171/111—a hypertensive emergency compared to a “normal” range of less than 120/80.

“I don’t know what made me do it, but I dug around and found what was probably an old aspirin, and I took it,” Deanna said. “My doctor said that might be what saved my life.”

Deanna rushed to the ED, where she was quickly assessed. The Code Heart policy at MedStar St. Mary’s provides an evidence-based approach to treating patients believed to be suffering an acute ST-segment elevation myocardial infarction (STEMI), also known as a heart attack. A nurse will complete an immediate assessment on those complaining of chest pain and/or acute coronary symptoms and coordinate appropriate testing. Once the patient is evaluated by a provider and determined to be experiencing a STEMI, Code Heart is activated to provide patients with the appropriate next level of care.

“I got there so fast after my heart attack started, it didn’t show up on the blood work,” Deanna said. “But the ED staff took such great care of me. They were really proactive.”

Heart attacks occur when blood clots form around a built-up plaque on one or more of the heart’s arteries, blocking critical blood flow and oxygen. Genetic and lifestyle factors contribute to their causes. Particularly at risk are those who use tobacco, are physically inactive, and/or have chronic conditions such as obesity, diabetes, high cholesterol, and hypertension. Though Deanna did not fit any of these descriptions, she did have a heart attack, likely based on genetics. Transported to the MedStar Heart & Vascular Institute’s Cardiac Catheterization Lab at MedStar Washington Hospital Center (MWHC), Deanna was found to have a 90% blockage in the left anterior descending (LAD) artery and 70% blockage in another. The LAD blockage is especially dangerous. According to the American Heart Association, only 10% of those who experience this type of sudden cardiac event outside of a hospital will survive. It’s often called “the widowmaker.”

With her thyroid surgery already scheduled, the team at MWHC determined it was best to perform open heart surgery rather than place stents to hold the arteries open. Her double bypass was completed on a Thursday, and Deanna was able to go home to her family on Sunday morning.

“People who know me and my passion for wellness say, ‘If it could happen to you, it could happen to us,’ but I don’t want that to be a reason someone doesn’t take care of themselves,” said Deanna. “While unexpected things can happen to anyone, including me, healthy habits can reduce our risks. It definitely helped me with a speedy recovery and a positive outcome.”

The following month, Deanna underwent another successful surgery on her thyroid. That fateful summer is a year and a half behind her now, and she is “back to her normal life,” aside from her scars and medication.

Deanna credits the quick work of the ED team at MedStar St. Mary’s with helping her story to have its happy result.

“Between the aspirin I took and the thoroughness of the ED staff, I was able to recover and had a positive outcome,” she said. “I have a new appreciation for hospital staff and emergency services. It’s a tough job, what they all do, and I was cared for very well.”

Follow-up appointments now include regular visits with Jeffrey Trabb, MD, board-certified cardiologist with MedStar Cardiology Associates in Leonardtown and a member of the MedStar Heart & Vascular Institute. Deanna also sees Maria O’Brien, MD, for primary care through MedStar Medical Group at St. Mary’s.

“My MedStar team works together. They’re honest with me, and they’re very proactive,” said Deanna. Today, the New York native shares her story with clients, colleagues, and the community as a way to “make it a positive.” She’s considered starting a support group for heart attack survivors, too.

“As women, we’re always multi-tasking and thinking of others,” said Deanna. “I even cleaned out my purse before going back in the ED! I made a to-do list for my son and later tried to convince the cardiac surgeon to let me leave the hospital for a day so I could tie up some personal matters at home. I understand the balance of life, work, family, children—it can be overwhelming. Many of us prioritize taking care of others rather than ourselves, but it is important to practice self-care.”

Commit to yourself and your needs, too, Deanna advised.

This could mean booking an overdue doctor’s appointment, making time for healthy meal preparation and exercise, getting a massage, or just taking a walk.

“Make time for you,” she said. “Listen to your body, educate yourself, and find out more about your risk factors.”


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