Owensboro patient shows ‘true grit’ in recovery after massive heart attack

LEXINGTON, Ky. (May 14, 2024) – Bobby Patton was in rough shape.  

That’s what UK HealthCare cardiologist Navin Rajagopalan, M.D., remembers from their first meeting in March 2023. After a massive heart attack, procedures to place stents in his arteries and countless medications to help his heart function, Bobby still felt terrible. Worse still, he felt frustrated. He just wanted to get better.  

Originally from Detroit, Bobby Patton moved to Owensboro at age 4 and grew up right on the Ohio River. When he wasn’t working his union construction job, he would spend time on the water, boating and kayaking, as well as smoking meats with his brother-in-law on Bobby’s pull-behind smoker. It’s a hobby he takes seriously, entering barbecue contests in and around Owensboro. 

In September 2018, he went to his local urgent care clinic because he was having trouble breathing. After being told he had pneumonia or bronchitis, he was prescribed steroids and breathing treatments. A few weeks later, while on a construction job, the breathing trouble returned, along with swollen legs. He went to a different urgent care clinic where he was told he should get to the emergency room right away.  

“I went back to my car and just sat there crying,” he said. “I thought, ‘Something’s wrong with me, I know it.’”  

At the emergency room, his worst fears were confirmed; Bobby had congestive heart failure.  

He met with a cardiologist and had a defibrillator implanted, but was hospitalized repeatedly for his breathing problem and fluid in his lungs. Despite these interventions, Bobby’s health took a drastic turn in March 2023.  

After falling asleep on the couch, Bobby woke up one morning with a pounding chest. Thinking it was heartburn from his Chinese food dinner, he took a few antacids and waited for the feeling to stop. Instead, it got worse. His head spinning, body sweating, he knew something was seriously wrong. He managed to put his shoes on and drive himself to the hospital.   

When he arrived, he remembers one of the doctors asking if he ever had a heart attack. When Bobby replied that he had not, the doctor said, “Well, you’re having one right now.”  

Bobby was experiencing an ST-elevated myocardial infarction, or STEMI. One of the most severe types of heart attacks, STEMIs occur when one of the heart’s major arteries is blocked. Bobby underwent emergency cardiac catheterization to open the artery with a series of stents.   

But the damage had been done, and he needed more drastic interventions. His cardiologist at Owensboro Health referred him to the preeminent destination for cardiovascular care in Kentucky.     

Part of the statewide Gill Affiliate Network, Owensboro Health and UK HealthCare work together to connect patients with rare, severe illnesses to specialists for further evaluation and treatment. Because of the nature of the network, Bobby didn’t have to go all the way to Lexington to see a specialist — the specialist came to him. Rajagopalan recalls meeting Bobby at his first clinic session in Owensboro.  

“He was in pretty bad shape, very symptomatic and short of breath with minimal exertion,” said Rajagopalan. “Just with talking to me, he seemed out of breath.”  

Heart function is measured by ejection fraction (EF), or how much blood pumps out of the left ventricle with each contraction. In a healthy heart, that percentage is 50% or higher.   

Bobby’s EF was 15%.  

To still be so symptomatic after having stents warranted quick action. Rajagopalan had Bobby come to Lexington for further testing and treatment.  

Bobby recalls that whirlwind week in Lexington. He underwent a right heart catheterization to determine the severity of his heart failure. That test revealed his heart was not pumping enough blood, so he was started on an intravenous medication called milrinone.  Despite being on milrinone continuously, Bobby continued to feel unwell.  

“They suggested that while I was still somewhat healthy, instead of sending me home and having me come back in three months when I was gravely ill, I should just stay here and they’ll put this LVAD in me,” Bobby said.  

The LVAD, or left ventricular assist device, helps the left ventricle, the main blood-pumping chamber of the heart, move blood to the rest of the body. A mechanical pump implanted in the heart and controlled by a battery outside the body, the LVAD circulates the body’s blood while allowing the heart tissue to rest, recover and be treated. It is life-saving and can be used as a therapy for patients awaiting heart transplants or for patients who are not transplant candidates. Surgeons at UK implant around 25 LVADs a year.  

Bobby’s LVAD was implanted in June 2023, and he spent the next five weeks recovering at UK’s Albert B. Chandler Hospital.

“That was a hell of a journey,” Bobby said. “After surgery, I couldn’t hardly walk. It was all I could do to swing my feet out of the hospital bed and push myself with a walker.”  

After a few rounds of physical therapy, Bobby turned a corner — literally. He told his therapist that he felt like walking. After a few guided trips using the parallel bars, Bobby was off to the races.  On his first walk around this hospital, he joked with Mallory, one of his nurses, that if she was going to accompany him on his walks, she should probably stretch first. 

After being discharged from UK, Bobby spent 10 days at Cardinal Hill Rehabilitation Hospital to recover his strength and stamina. Back home in Owensboro, he met up with friends who noticed a difference in him right away.   

“They can tell just by talking to me that I’m breathing better,” he said. Although he says it’s hard to get used to being connected to his batteries, also commonly reported by LVAD patients, he views it as just one more step on his journey to a healthy life.  

“From the moment I met him, I could tell he was motivated to do whatever it took to survive,” said Miriam Lewis, a mechanical circulatory support coordinator at Gill who checks in with Bobby weekly. “He has true grit. He never once complained about having to get up and walk after surgery. He was engaged during his LVAD education and wanted to learn everything. Bobby has adjusted to the LVAD life more than anyone could have hoped for. While his goal is to get a heart transplant, he has taken full advantage of the life that the LVAD allows him to have.”  

“Collaborations like the Gill Affiliate Network have brought advanced treatment options that improve survival and quality of life closer to home to him, and others who need it,” said Shire. “It is great to see him doing well with his LVAD.” 

The LVAD doesn’t hold him back from one of his passions — motorcycles. With his pump at his side, he and his friends took a 240-mile trip through the Shawnee National Forest. He’s grateful for those semblances of normalcy with his old friends and equally grateful for the new friends he’s made along the way. He recalls how he would joke around with his nurses, but also respected their mutual honesty. 

“They are God’s angels,” Bobby said of the nurses and staff at both Owensboro Health and Gill Heart. “They were put here to watch out for me — Sherry and her staff on 8-100, but especially Beth, Jaclyn, Stellina, Ashlyn, Robin and Alana. I would keep it real and tell them how it is. And I just bug them to death.”  

Miriam calls Bobby weekly; she asks how he is feeling, and they discuss medication changes. But the check-ins often shift into conversations between friends. Bobby will tell her about the comedy shows he attended, get-togethers with his family and adventures on his motorcycle.  

“He reached out specifically to wish all of us coordinators a Happy Valentine’s Day,” said Miriam. “He is the kindest soul.”   

Bobby recalls the generosity of the nurses and the small gestures that brought him and his mother comfort. During his five-week stay at UK, nursing tech Alana would bring his mother coffee without her asking for it. He became close with Tanya Hatfield, an advanced practice provider at Chandler who accompanied him on his trips outside to get fresh air. When he thinks back to his interactions with Tonya, he says, “If you aren’t smiling when she comes in, you are when she leaves.”

After he was discharged, his inpatient care team sent him cards telling him how much they enjoyed caring for him. Mallory thanked him for making her go for daily walks around the hospital. 

He felt a special connection with Amber Enlow, a heart failure nurse navigator with the cardiology team at Owensboro Health who works with Rajagopalan.    

“When I was in the hospital in Lexington, she called me up a couple of times just to tell me she was thinking about me,” said Bobby. “I told her, ‘You don’t even know how much that means to me.’ I never had a nurse just call me up out of the blue just to see how I was doing.”  

“Bobby was the first inpatient I cared for as a heart failure nurse navigator,” said Amber. “Despite the severity of his condition, he was very engaged with the education. Bobby became tearful and said, ‘I’m not ready to lose this battle yet.’”  

Amber promised she would be right beside him, guiding him through his journey. After his LVAD surgery, she called him regularly to check in.    

“He expressed how thankful he and his family were for the care and the kindness that he received while at UK,” she said. “Once Bobby made it back home, he came into the office to say hello and show me his LVAD. I couldn’t stop thinking how much better Bobby was doing — he was talking without struggling for air, his color was better and he had no swelling. I learned so much from Bobby’s journey and I am grateful for being able to be part of it.”  

Bobby was also touched by the generosity of total strangers. Random Acts of Flowers, a group that delivers flowers, encouragement and moments of kindness to hospital patients, sent flowers to Bobby while he was recovering at UK.   

“It really touched me that people donate their time and money just to bring stuff to complete strangers,” he said. “I want to put something together like that for the cardiac patients in the hospital in Owensboro. That’s something I’d like to do as my way of paying them back.”    

While Bobby finds a way to give back, he’s also looking forward. During a long hospital stay in March 2024, he met a young man who had recently had an LVAD installed. Bobby chatted with him and his family, answering their questions and letting them know that the LVAD hasn’t slowed him down or held him back. 

He follows up with UK’s LVAD team every few months and keeps in touch with Amber, who is always looking out for him. While the LVAD doesn’t slow him down, he’s hopeful about a future without it.   

“My goal is to get re-evaluated for transplant,” he said. “I used to love to go boating, water skiing and swimming. I want to buy a kayak. I want to get back to doing the things I love to do.”  


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