Tony Tuck is getting his heart back in shape. About a year ago, it sent him a painful message.
"I was at home, felt some pain in my chest and in the pit of both arms," he said.
It was a heart attack. The pain came in waves as he left home for Person Memorial Hospital in Roxboro.
"The third time was so hard, I knew I couldn't stand it again," Tuck said.
Tuck needed therapy to open blocked arteries, something rural hospitals like Person Memorial Hospital don't do. If done in time, it saves lives.
"Despite this knowledge, at least one in five persons with a heart attack is not treated. And half of those who are treated are treated too slowly," said Duke cardiologist Dr. James Jollis.
Only 60 percent of North Carolinians with acute heart attacks get timely treatments to open blocked arteries, compared to the national average of 70 percent.
Blue Cross/Blue Shield and a statewide network of hospitals have a project called RACE to improve that response time. It begins in EMS units as crews evaluate which patients need angioplasty or clot-busting drugs to restore blood flow to the heart.
"They can, a lot of times, alert us even before they get to our door," said Dr. Kimmie Yarborough, director of Person Memorial Hospital's Emergency Department.
Yarborough can then call the nearest major heart center hotline at Duke, saying she has a patient that meets the RACE protocol criteria. The hospital can then immediately accept the patient.
By ambulance, Duke is about 30 minutes away. The goal is to get the patient from the rural hospital to reperfusion therapy within 90 minutes.
Tuck made it within an hour of his first symptoms. He got a quadruple bypass and a second chance at life.
"Just thank God for letting these people do what they do, to save my life and the others too," he said.
North Carolina is home to 10 angioplasty and heart bypass centers in the state. The project connects 80 rural hospitals to those centers. RACE also provides a 24-hour hotline staffed by senior cardiologists who can help smaller hospitals who do not have a cardiologist on staff.
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