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Full Circle: A heart patient’s journey back to the basketball court

Eric Kiehl wanted to know when he could play basketball again.

Lying on a hospital table at Penn State Health Holy Spirit Medical Center in the moments before slipping from consciousness for emergency double heart bypass surgery, Eric’s thoughts drifted to his several-mornings-a-week passion. Eric often starts his day on the court at LA Fitness in Camp Hill. But today ― Oct. 25, 2022 ― something tightened the 53-year-old’s back and shoulders, and he blacked out.

Dr. Sung Park, the cardiothoracic surgeon who was preparing to operate, didn’t know. The odds of surviving the complex procedure ― let along getting back on the court ― were not great.

Eric came through the five-hour surgery just fine. He credits Dr. Park with saving his life.

It was the second time he’d been saved that day.

Around Labor Day weekend, Eric contracted COVID-19. It was a bad bout with the illness, and he eventually shook it. But he felt as though he’d lost a step.

Little else made him feel that way. Eric had always been healthy. In the hours before heading off to his job as director of policy and partnership at the Pennsylvania Association of Community Health Centers, Eric’s morning routine usually included basketball or racquetball. He and his wife Tammy are active and travel often to visit their two daughters or take day trips to explore the local areas.

A health crisis wasn’t high on his list of worries. Then, walking off the court on Oct. 25, he lost consciousness.

That’s when Eric received his first big save of the day. Two bystanders started cardio pulmonary resuscitation. A nurse who happened to be there for a morning workout used LA Fitness’s automated external defibrillator (AED) machine to shock Eric’s heart back into rhythm.

Moments later, an ambulance took Eric to Holy Spirit Medical Center. He’d stopped breathing twice. Doctors found the base of his aorta was occluded by 90%.

That weakness he felt after COVID-19 was his only clue something was wrong.

“Listen to even the smallest signals in your body,” Eric said, “and follow-up.”

Great communication means everything

Cardiologist Dr. Sang Kim was the first physician to examine him in the Emergency Department. He was honest with Tammy, the surgery would be difficult, and Dr. Kim wanted to bring in a specialist. He explained Eric’s condition and described the procedure ― doctors would redirect blood flow around two blocked arteries.

Dr. Kim told her she should prepare for the worst.

Eric’s hours in surgery crawled by, his family and friends gathered in a room nearby and waited.

Eventually, Dr. Park arrived with the good news. The operation was a complete success.

During his first three days in the cardiac intensive care unit, it dawned on Eric that he and his family weren’t going to go through this alone.

Eric is a jokester by nature. “When I am stressed I joke,” he said. The health care professionals he worked with rolled with it and catered to his personality. Their talks were important, but light-hearted and information was imparted in English – not medicalese.

“My wife felt like she and other family members knew everything as it unfolded,” Eric said, “and they respected our family’s space while doing their jobs.”

Eric was more than ready to leave.

“We felt confident they had developed a good plan for my physical and mental health needs,” he said.

He found all the pills to be the hardest part. He left with numerous new medications that were specific to his recovery, which he had to reconcile with the regular medicine regime.

“That was overwhelming,” he said. “You probably need half a day just to cover medicine. The home health nurse really helped once we got settled.”

Left photo, Kiehl works with Laura Smith, left, a registered nurse, during his pulmonary rehabilitation session at Penn State Health Holy Spirit Medical Center. Right photo, Kiehl jokes with Chris Martin, center, and Derrick Brown in between pickup basketball games at LA Fitness in Camp Hill.

The Road Back

Eric returned to work full-time after Thanksgiving and began his cardiac rehabilitation two days a week in early December.

“There is a great deal I do not remember about the day I had the heart attack,” he said. “I was out quite a bit.”

One thing he does remember clearly are the hugs from his daughters. “They were much longer than usual, we held on pretty tight.”

What might have been is still fresh in his mind, along with an overwhelming sense of gratitude.

“I am here because of the fast response from the people at the gym, Dr. Park’s excellent surgical skills and my post-surgery care,” he says.

And five months later, Eric’s morning routine is returning. He’s back on the basketball court again…full steam ahead.

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