Suzanne Calicchio of Kings Park had just put a roast beef in the oven last May when she felt that something wasn’t right. First there was the numbness in her arm and then the pain in her chest.
As a precaution, Calicchio’s fiance, Michael Barradas, called an ambulance, a move that undoubtedly helped save her life.
Calicchio, 48, was taken to St. Catherine of Siena Hospital in Smithtown after suffering a “widowmaker,” the most serious type of heart attack, where there is a 100% blockage in the left anterior descending artery, a critical blood vessel.
During the next 90 minutes, doctors would revive Calicchio over and over again — 33 times in all — after they shocked her with an automated external defibrillator.
“It’s almost like your own heart stops,” Barradas said. “You start crying and you have no idea what to do. You look for help and anybody to embrace you and there’s nobody there.”
More than six months later, Calicchio, now recovered and planning for her September wedding, is still comprehending how close she came to death, and the extreme measures used to save her life.
“I was blown away that it happened to me,” she said. “Of course I can’t remember anything. But the fact that the doctor said that … he’s never seen a case like this one blew my mind.”
Dr. James Ryan, director of St. Catherine’s Emergency Department, who’s been practicing emergency medicine for 35 years, said he’s never shocked a patient 33 times and had that person survive with a normal mental status.
“It’s pretty remarkable that we did resuscitation that lasted 1 hour and 20 minutes and she came out of it and seems perfectly normal now,” Ryan said. “That’s incredibly unusual.”
‘Your heart drops to the floor’
May 11 started out as a normal spring day for Calicchio, who runs a motor home rental company.
She was preparing dinner when she told Barradas, 56, about the pain in her arm and chest. Calicchio wasn’t particularly concerned, but Barradas didn’t take any chances and called 911.
At the hospital, Barradas was told by doctors that his fiancee had gone into cardiac arrest and they’d revived her 20 times. A few minutes later, an update: Doctors were up to 27 shocks and were bringing her to the catheterization lab — where she’d receive six more shocks — before a stent was put in to open up the artery.
“They said if they can find something wrong, she has a 50-50 chance of living, but if they cannot find anything wrong with her, she’s not going to make it out of here alive,” Barradas said. “Your heart drops to the floor in a split second because it’s incredible to hear those words about somebody who was home a few hours before and was just fine.”
Ryan said Calicchio, who had no history of heart ailments, was an unusual case. He would shock her heart back into a normal rhythm and she’d appear to stabilize. But moments later, the heart would stop again, unable to pump blood.
“We’d get her back for a little while and she’d stop again,” he said. “We got it beating fairly regularly but every few minutes would have to shock her again.”
‘It was not time yet to go’
Calicchio, a born-again Christian, said she remembers a vision while unconscious of “crossing over” to a place with a white gate. Behind the gate, Calicchio said, was her mother, Joanne, who had died when she was 13, and Barradas’ mother, Manuela, who’d passed the previous year.
“They said it was not time yet to go,” she said.
Once Calicchio was stabilized, doctors implanted an Impella device, which helps the flow of blood to the heart. Days later, they transferred Calicchio to St. Francis Hospital & Heart Center in Roslyn.
But her troubles were not over.
After the Impella device was removed, Calicchio’s kidneys began failing, and she was placed on dialysis. Then she dealt with a bout of pneumonia, and it would be three weeks until she was discharged from St. Francis.
Calicchio, who continues to receive cognitive therapy and suffers with bouts of short-term memory loss, now appears to be on the road to a full recovery, Ryan said.
“The important take-away message is to listen to your body when you have chest pain,” he said. “If you ignore it the outcome, it could be disastrous.”