By Charlene Bielema
For her, it was a chest heaviness and pain she thought was the worsening of an upper respiratory infection — maybe the start of pneumonia.
For him, it was heavy sweating followed by pain, possibly the result of a hiatal hernia for which he had previously been treated.
But as it turned out, Penny and Loras Osterhaus of Clinton both were in the throes of a medical emergency — heart attacks the couple, now both in their early 50s, suffered just eight months apart. Their message: If you have pain, make the call for help.
Penny’s heart attack was first, occurring in October 2011.
She never saw it coming.
A special education teacher at Clinton’s Jefferson Elementary School, Penny, then 49, had been battling an upper respiratory illness during the early part of the week. By the following Saturday, she was home alone, still not feeling well. Loras, to whom she has been married for 26 years, was at a ball game at the University of Iowa. She decided to run some errands and went to a local store. That’s when she noticed she was having some trouble breathing and her chest was starting to hurt. She would push the cart and then rest to catch her breath.
During the next five hours, she would follow that same pattern: If she exerted herself, as she did when she brought the groceries up the steps into the kitchen, she would hurt and have trouble breathing. She then would sit down and the pain would go away. She sat in her recliner, with her feet up, watching the Iowa game on TV, texting Loras throughout and chatting on the computer with their daughter Megan, an Iowa State University graduate living in Ames.
But things worsened around 9 p.m., when she decided to scrub the shower in their downstairs living area. A sharp pain pushed through her left arm.
“I couldn’t get comfortable. I went to make the bed and laid in the bed,” she recalls. “I wondered what was going on.”
She started to sweat and found herself seeking comfort on the couch, then on a chair. That’s when she realized she needed help.
It was 10 p.m. when she picked up the telephone and called her neighbor, Betty Ketelsen.
Ketelsen, who had undergone medical training, knew there was a problem right away.
“I don’t remember a lot,” Penny said of what happened next. “She told me she was calling 9-1-1.”
She does know the ambulance crew worked on her for quite awhile in the bedroom and at one point she coded. She was taken to Mercy Medical Center North in Clinton, where she was greeted by what she describes as a “horseshoe-shaped ensemble of people.”
Other memories are the tiles rolling by overhead as the gurney she was on was pushed down the hospital hallway at a high rate of speed and being told she was having a heart attack. And she remembers the flood of emotions.
“We are both extremely spiritual people,” she said pointing to Loras. “I wasn’t scared, probably because of my Christian background. I felt sad. All I could think about was Megan and Loras.”
Doctors found a 100-percent blockage, calling her type of medical event a widowmaker since most don’t survive such a heart attack. In fact, her father had a massive heart attack at age 43, survived, but later died of a fatal heart attack at age 52. Her grandfather on her dad’s side died of a heart attack at age 43. She said her family never thought about the women being at risk of a heart attack, instead they urged her brother to get tested.
Three days of hospitalization, the placement of a stent, a recuperation period and 36 sessions of cardiac rehabilitation at Mercy’s Cath Lab led her back to a full life.
It also was a wakeup call for Loras, now 53. After Penny’s heart attack, he went in for heart screenings to make sure his heart was healthy.
Everything appeared to be well. Then in June 2012, Loras, who had dental work done earlier in the day, started to feel pain in his chest while mowing the lawn.
“Halfway through, I felt pain in the center of my chest,” he said.
Thinking it was a hiatal hernia, he kept mowing.
But the pain worsened, migrating to his left shoulder. He sat down in the garage, and still in pain, put the mower in the shed. He started to sweat and decided to rest in a downstairs bedroom to cool off. Five minutes later, he was in the shower, thinking that would stop the sweating.
Penny, who had been gone but returned home, was upstairs cooking dinner when she heard Loras in the shower. She was sitting in the living room when Loras came up the steps and sat down at the top of them.
“I think you need to take me somewhere,” he said, explaining that he had sharp and intense chest pains.
He took an aspirin and she drove him to the emergency room at Mercy. Thirty minutes later, after taking nitroglycerine and morphine, the pain had subsided. His blood work and EKG looked normal, but they decided to keep him overnight for observation. Penny left the hospital at 10 p.m., thinking Loras would be released the next morning.
But overnight blood tests showed there was something wrong. Heart enzymes indicated he had sustained a heart attack and doctors detected a 99 percent blockage in his right coronary artery.
He was put on Heparin and a stent was placed. Cardiac rehab and a three-week break from his job as the Clinton School District’s project director for the afterschool and mentoring program, with a gradual return to full time was in order.
Unlike the heart history in his wife’s family, no heart problems were detected in his family, which includes nine older siblings.
Today, the couple work side by side to keep their hearts healthy. Penny, whose heart attack was massive, sustained heart damage but is able to participate in spin classes at the YWCA and works out several times a week. She was cognizant of her diet prior to her heart attack, but is even moreso now. She often chooses chicken as a main dish and monitors their transfat intake.
Loras completely changed his eating habits, leaving his junk-food habits in the dust as he chooses healthier foods. He also joined the Ericksen Community Center, exercises five times a week, rides a bicycle and has lost 35 pounds.
They also are on a medication regimen, which Penny said was hard for her to get used to. They are very thankful for the medical teams that saved their lives and for the support and prayers of families and friends, which aided in their recoveries.
Both stress that if a man or woman feels the pain and symptoms the couple encountered, they should call for help right away.
“Pay attention,” Penny said. “Don’t dismiss it if you are having pain. Don’t wait. Call 9-1-1 and don’t drive yourself because they can have people ready for you when you get there.”
In the wake of everything she has been through, Penny deals with emotions that run from one extreme to the other.
“I am very thankful and feel very blessed that I am still alive,” she said. “For some reason I was saved and I don’t know why. At times I feel guilty because some don’t make it.”
She prays for that answer and asks for guidance from God. While she also dealt with a fear of living, a nurse’s words of advice changed that.
“She said, ‘Penny, don’t be a cardiac cripple. Don’t stop living your life,’” Penny said.
Loras said the heart attack changed the way he looks at life as well.
“Just take it one day at a time and enjoy each day,” he said. “Sometimes you take everything for granted and I don’t do that anymore. Take everything in stride and one day at a time.”