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February 1, 2014

After ignoring signs, woman lucky to be alive

JOHNSTOWN — Joella Bobak thought the pain and numbness in her left arm was caused by sleeping on her side.

A recent sinus infection got the blame for pain and heaviness in her chest.

The blame game continued for more than a day until she collapsed into her husband's arms on June 21, 2013, with a massive heart attack at their home in Ferndale.

Bobak admits she should have known better. A longtime emergency medical technician and CPR instructor, Bobak has been an eyewitness to many similar stories.

“I had all the classic signals and I ignored them,” she said.

Celebrating American Heart Month in February, Bobak is using her second chance at life to share her story and encourage other to take action when they experience the early warning signs.

Bobak believes she also symbolizes the importance of perseverance and faith for emergency workers.

She credits her husband, Peter, with beginning the series of events that saved her life and set her on the road to recovery.

Peter Bobak had recently been riding with his wife on a cardiac rescue call and had witnessed the latest recommendations in CPR.

“They just changed how to do CPR,” Joella Bobak said.

“We don’t do the breaths anymore. It’s just 100 compressions a minute.”

When his wife collapsed while complaining of nausea and chest pain, Peter Bobak started CPR and called 911: The two most important responses.

“He remembered not to do the breaths, just the compressions,” Joella Bobak said.

Within minutes, the cavalry arrived.

“My co-workers from Upper Yoder Township Fire and Rescue are the ones that came to work on me,” she said.

Although she admits hearing it was one of their own may have affected the emergency response, Joella Bobak said crews traditionally have a strong turnout for serious medical cases. There were eight paramedics, two trauma doctors, and an assortment of firefighters and emergency medical technicians swarming her home that day.

“It was kind of like a clown car, folks,” she said.

It took 59 minutes and seven shocks from the defibrillator to stabilize her enough for a 2-mile transport to Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center in Johnstown. While being stabilized again in the emergency department, Joella Bobak had a seizure caused by lack of oxygen to the brain.

Finally, she was able to move into Memorial’s heart catheterization lab, where interventional cardiologist Dr. Roshankumar Patel found a 100 percent blockage in one of the main arteries supplying oxygen to her heart. He was able to open the vessel using an angioplasty balloon and put in a small tube called a stent to maintain the blood flow.

Because her heart muscle was weakened by the lack of oxygen, Patel also guided a small tubular pump through a catheter into the left ventricle chamber of her heart where it could assist in sending blood throughout her body.

Bobak described the Abiomed Impella heart pump as “the world’s smallest outboard motor.”

Patel agrees that Bobak is lucky to be alive.

“She went almost dead,” Patel said. “The emergency services did a really good job. She’s back to normal.”

The Impella pump is just one example of the latest technology saving heart patients at Memorial, Patel said. A minimally invasive procedure feeds the pump into the heart through a small incision in the upper thigh, where the Impella remains for several days until the heart recovers enough to pump on its own.

Even after the procedure, doctors were not sure of Bobak’s recovery. Her husband was advised to think about arrangements for her funeral.

After four days, the hospital started weaning her from life support, but she did not respond when asked to squeeze her hand or to write on a pad. Finally, she sat up and pulled out her breathing tube.

“They said I did that because I can’t write as fast as my mouth goes and I wanted to talk,” Bobak said.  

She was released from Memorial seven days after her cardiac arrest. After cardiac rehab and follow-up treatment, the only lasting side effect is some short-term memory loss.

She credits the entire continuum of medical support in Greater Johnstown – from the emergency responders to the Memorial’s trauma and cardiac teams to the rehab care.

“I am blown away,” she said. “We had a celebration of life at the hospital (in January). To tell you I was overwhelmed is an understatement. Seeing all the people and the love in that room was just breathtaking.

“I had the best treatment I could possibly have. I could not have gotten better quality care anywhere. People need to take a look at what we have in town.”

Her recovery has been inspiring for her colleagues in the emergency services arena.

“I have been in emergency services long enough to know I should have been pronounced dead here at the house,” Bobak said, explaining that her electrocardiogram readout is being used in Memorial’s training program.

“I tell them to give my name,” she said. “Tell them to move just a little longer on that call. I am living proof that it does work.”

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