Don’t Delay When It Comes to Your Heart, a Mount Sinai Cardiologist Says

To all outward appearances, Eric Masella was in great shape. The 45-year old father hit the gym frequently and always had the energy to play with his 18-month-old son. He had been diagnosed a year before with an irregular heartbeat condition called atrial fibrillation, or AFib. However, the condition never affected his day-to-day life.

When COVID-19 hit, life got busy and stressful.  “Doctors weren’t available, so I hadn’t seen a doctor in a while—at least a year,” Eric says. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, four out of ten Americans put off routine or emergency visits in the first half of 2020—sometimes with devastating results.

In October 2020, Eric developed a persistent cough and extreme fatigue. He got a COVID test, but it turned out negative. However, in January 2021, he developed stomach pain that was so excruciating that he was forced to go to a local hospital. He collapsed in the Emergency Room and had no pulse for six minutes while staff desperately tried to revive him with CPR.

“I had kidney failure, liver failure, cardiac arrest. I died,” Eric says. “They were able to get me back, and once they did, I was on life support for the next three days.”

Tests determined that he had a clot in his heart, and his heart pump function was so poor that his organs had started shutting down. Ultimately, the hospital was able to send him home after he was stable, but after a few days, he suddenly couldn’t walk. He decided to seek attention from cardiologists at the Mount Sinai Health System—and he got an urgent appointment with heart failure specialist Anu Lala, MD, Assistant Professor of Medicine (Cardiology) at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Eric arrived for his appointment in a wheelchair, and Dr. Lala and nurse practitioner Kimberly Ashley took one look at him and immediately wheeled him to the Emergency Room—something they have rarely had to do. He was in severe heart failure.

The first step was to clear out the excess fluid in his body with diuretics. In doing so, Eric’s heart rhythm was restored to normal. He then received medical therapy for reduced heart muscle function. As Eric grew stronger, he was released, and as an outpatient, he underwent an ablation of the heart tissue that was causing the atrial fibrillation.

After these procedures, Eric has bounced back quickly and is even back at the gym. But his story is a precautionary tale for those who put off routine health care visits. “When I think of what could have happened, my son might not have a father. And that still scares me, but I’m safe now,” Eric says.

Dr. Lala says this is an “exciting time” in cardiology as new, life-saving treatments have been developed to improve heart function.  The task now is making patients aware of this, so she believes that when diagnosing, treating, and communicating with heart patients and their families, words matter.

“The cardiology community is trying to promote using the term ‘heart function’ instead of ‘heart failure’ when talking to patients. ‘Heart failure’ is such a scary term, especially for patients who are young.” She believes that using the term “heart function” and focusing on how to improve it helps patients better engage in their own care, and better understand their condition. “This was especially true of Eric,” Dr. Lala adds.

Since Eric’s ordeal, he says many of his friends have reached out for cardiology referrals, because they also have put off checkups for their heart condition. Dr. Lala offers this advice, “The message that I would urge people to take home is, do not ignore your symptoms. Take the time to check in with yourself.”