Joseph Pompa

Joseph Pompa

Change of Heart

Joseph Pompa believed healthy eating and exercise kept him in top shape, until a heart episode caught him by surprise—resulting in a trip to Sherman Hospital.


Joseph Pompa recalls October 9, 2013, in great detail: He exercised for an hour and a half in the morning, worked in the yard cutting branches, ran errands and enjoyed dinner out with his wife, watched television from 8-9 pm, and then climbed 15 stairs—with no problem—to get ready for bed. As he bent over to squeeze toothpaste onto his toothbrush, he experienced sharp chest pain. Believing it was a pulled muscle, he walked around while massaging the area, but the pain started to radiate across his chest and intensify. At that point, he went downstairs and told his wife she needed to drive him to Advocate Sherman Hospital.

State of Emergency

On the 14-mile drive from Joe’s home in Marengo to Sherman Hospital in Elgin, he realized he should have allowed his wife to call an ambulance. He fought the reality of his increasing pain by thinking about how he had always eaten well, worked out five or six times a week and had not experienced any warning signs of health problems. He was an active 72-year-old. Even when the EKG technician in the emergency department informed him “Sir you are having a heart attack,” it was something Joe could not fully comprehend. “But fear set in when I heard those words,” he explains. “I had been so active all my life. What was my life going to be like if I survived?”

That night, Joe underwent angioplasty to open a blocked artery, followed by a nine-day hospitalization.

His heart was very weak, so he was discharged with an external defibrillator to wear in anticipation of receiving an implant. His ejection fraction (EF)—an important measure in determining how well the heart is pumping out blood and in diagnosing and tracking heart failure—was less than 30 percent (a normal EF is usually between 55 and 70).

After discharge, Joe relied heavily on support from the Heart Failure Clinic and still does today. He repeatedly stresses how wonderful the staff and nurses in the clinic are—always taking as much time as he needs to talk through questions and answers to ensure he has clarity. “Many times medical lingo and having multiple physicians can be overwhelming,” explains Christina Hanson, clinical nurse specialist in the Heart Failure Clinic. “We are available to help patients like Joe navigate through it all—to support them by teaching ways to monitor for symptoms of heart failure and to learn about their medications.”

Joe also started cardiac rehab three times per week. Although he was doing well during his sessions, later he would randomly experience shortness of breath that had to be controlled with multiple medication adjustments under the close watch of his doctor. In January, Joe underwent another surgery to have three stents placed—opening two arteries that were 70 percent blocked and a third that was “cemented shut.”

“I was told it would take six to nine months to recover, and don’t get discouraged by bad days,” remembers Joe. “That is a lot easier said than done. It’s such a humbling and difficult experience having to watch my wife outside clearing the snow; I have felt so helpless and frustrated that I can’t do anything.”

Despite the physical and emotional challenges, there have been blessings throughout his journey as well. There was the nurse during his first hospital stay who found a recliner so Joe could sleep sitting up, since he experienced too much pain when he would lie down. There are the neighbors who shoveled his driveway and told him to “worry about getting healthy and we’ll worry about the snow.” There are his family members who continue to visit and call with words of encouragement when he needs it the most. And there is “his angel,” his wife, Maria, who keeps up with the medication and appointments—and is the core of his support system.

A New Reality

Joe’s recovery requires ongoing efforts. He continues rehab and now attends five times per week. After learning that drastic changes could signify fluid retention, he carefully monitors his blood pressure and weight daily for fluctuations. The medication he takes to help his heart heal has yielded progress so he was able to stop wearing the external defibrillator in February. He hopes to continue to make steady progress to ultimately receive confirmation by this summer that he won’t need an implant.

“I feel blessed that my care team has brought me this far, but I’m impatient and I want to be fully recovered tomorrow,” says Joe. “I just have to keep working hard to get back to where I want to be—100 percent for my wife, my family, my grandson and my granddaughter who will be born this spring. I need to be here for them.”

First published: Spring 2014