American Heart Month

American Heart Month: How the decision to seek care saved one patient’s life

Story Provided by IU Health

For most, American Heart Month in February is a reminder to check up on their heart health. For JD Schellhammer, it’s a reminder that one seemingly simple decision potentially saved his life. 

Schellhammer, better known locally as former country radio personality JD Cannon, had worked in Indianapolis radio since the late 70’s. Though most media jobs come with some level of stress, he recalled things were much worse than normal around 2010. 

“It was a rough, stressful year,” he said. 

At the time, Schellhammer periodically experienced chest pains. 

“I don’t want to call them chest pains, but it was, and it kind of freaked me out,” he explained. “It would feel like someone was sitting on my chest and I would break out in a cold sweat.” These episodes would last anywhere from a few minutes to an hour. 

Around that time, he had a colonoscopy. When he was done with the procedure, staff told him his heart was “going wild.” He was later diagnosed with atrial fibrillation (AFIB). It’s an arrythmia in which the top chambers of the heart quiver, which makes the bottom chambers of the heart beat in an irregular fashion. 

His physician at the time tried a few medications, but nothing worked. 

“The doctor said, ‘Well, you got AFIB and there’s not a heck of a lot we can do about it. It’s just something you’re going to have to live with,’” Schellhammer recalled.  “I said, ‘Really? I think I’m going to have to live with another doctor.’” 

He called his primary care physician, who recommended IU Health Saxony Hospital. Schellhammer set up an appointment with Dr. Nathan Lambert, a cardiologist at the hospital. 

“He walked in and sat down and said, ‘What do you do,’” Schellhammer said. “When I left I just thought he’s just a normal guy. There was none of that god complex there.”

Getting to know his patients is important for Dr. Lambert, not only on a personal level but to help find a suitable treatment as well.

“Prescription medications are a necessary and important part of treating most heart conditions. However, there is much to be accomplished and prevented with attention to lifestyle measures,” he explained. “Knowing if my patients are motivated to exercise, what their dietary habits are, the amount of stress they face, all help me tailor a treatment program.”

American Heart Month
Dr. Lambert

Dr. Lambert put Schellhammer on medications, but he recommended Schellhammer see another cardiologist at IU Health Saxony as well, Dr. Antonio Navarrete, who specializes in clinical cardiac electrophysiology. 

“Medicine has become very complex with multiple sub-specialties in order to provide the best care for the patient,” Dr. Navarrete said. “It is impossible for one physician to be an expert in the entire field.”

Schellhammer had already underwent pacemaker placement before he transferred to IU Health Saxony. However, several years later, Dr. Lambert recognized symptoms indicating Schellhammer needed a new pacemaker. Dr. Navarrete upgraded the pacemaker by adding a new wire and new pacemaker defibrillator, which he said restored almost normal heart pumping and significantly improved Schellhammer’s quality of life. 

“I’m enjoying my retirement a lot since then,” Schellhammer said. “I have honestly never felt better.”

He believes seeking additional treatment from Dr. Lambert and Dr. Navarrete saved his life. 

“Quite possibly I would be dead.”

Dr. Lambert agrees that if Schellhammer had left his AFIB untreated, there would have been serious health risks. 

“The biggest risk of unrecognized or untreated atrial fibrillation is a stroke, as a blood clot can form inside the heart and then travel up to the brain,” Dr. Lambert said. “Another possible complication is congestive heart failure, which can occur if the heart beats too fast for too long while in atrial fibrillation. Fortunately, with proper diagnosis and treatment, this is treatable and can be reversed.”

American Heart Month
Dr. Navarrete

After his experience, Schellhammer encourages anyone having heart issues to see a physician sooner rather than later. 

“If you think you have a problem, go and get it looked at.”

Both doctors stress that early detection of heart issues is beneficial when it comes to treatment. 

“Most heart conditions these days can be very effectively treated if caught early enough,” Dr. Lambert said. “A generation ago, congestive heart failure was a death sentence. Now, we fully expect the majority of patients to live fulfilling lives, even with this diagnosis. Heart attacks can be stopped in their midst with an angioplasty procedure. Strokes from atrial fibrillation can be prevented with medications or procedure. We have so much to offer these days, including affordable screening tests that can benefit entire populations. We have highly skilled cardiac specialists at IU Health Saxony and IU Health North available to treat all these conditions and more.”

“Don’t put it off,” Dr. Navarrete added. “It can add years and quality of life to your future. It is probably the best investment you can do. Your family and children will appreciate it.”

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