Merrilee Brown never sought anything in return for her longtime philanthropic support of Altru, but she ended up receiving something priceless: lifesaving care that gave her more time with the people she loves.
A 61-year-old Grand Forks native, semiretired homebuilder, and frequent traveler, Merrilee Brown has supported Altru in a variety of ways over the years, including serving on the Altru Health Foundation Board of Directors. She learned a long time ago the value of supporting local healthcare.
“I started thinking about donating around the time my father passed away,” Merrilee says. “If you can make your hospital and community better, you know somebody close to you is going to benefit from it.”
That certainly proved true for Merrilee last fall. She was working on a home in Big Sky, Montana, in late September, when she began experiencing troubling symptoms.
“There were times when I thought, my chest kind of hurts … that’s weird,” Merrilee says. “Discomfort would bother me between my shoulder blades and in my back. If I exerted myself enough, I felt pain in my lower jaw. I’d heard of jaw pain as a heart attack symptom, and I thought right away something might be going on with my heart.”
Merrilee flew to Las Vegas and joined her husband, Randy, at their home there. Just walking through the airport made her fatigued. Pain interrupted her sleep. The next day, Merrilee went to a local medical center. After undergoing a battery of tests, she went home with assurances that the results were fine and a possible diagnosis of acid reflux.
In the ensuing days, Merrilee’s symptoms continued intermittently. She stayed in close contact with her brother-in-law, a physician in Grand Forks, who did not rule out a problem with her heart. He advised that she return to Grand Forks as soon as possible to be evaluated at Altru.
Merrilee returned to Montana before continuing on to her family ranch in Western North Dakota the next day. All the while, symptoms continued off and on. The turning point came one mid-October night when Merrilee and Randy were back at home in Grand Forks. She woke up just after midnight and knew right away the symptoms she was experiencing were different.
“I woke up having the heart attack that would not quit,” Merrilee says. “After about 20 minutes, I was starting to shake. It was the same pain I’d had before, but just stronger, and it wouldn’t stop. By the time Randy woke up and asked if I was OK, I was crying and just trying to breathe. He flew out of bed, dressed in seconds, and helped me get out the door.”
When the Browns arrived at Altru, the emergency department team took an electrocardiogram of her heart and gave her medication to thin her blood. After reviewing Merrilee’s electrocardiogram results and talking with her about her symptoms, cardiologist Yassar Almanaseer, MD, ordered an angiogram, a cardiac catheterization procedure that would allow him to locate any blockages in her heart’s arteries. Merrilee was relieved that Dr. Almanaseer had a plan.
Within 15 minutes of arriving at Altru, Merrilee had an angiogram. During the procedure, Dr. Almanaseer found a 99% blockage in Merrilee’s left anterior descending artery, which delivers blood to the front of the heart. He placed a stent at the site of the blockage to restore blood flow. Merrilee was awake during the entire procedure.
“Within four or five minutes after the team placed the catheter in an artery at the top of my leg, a nurse leaned over to me and said, ‘We found the problem. We’re fixing it right now.’ I thought, wow, this seems so simple, and I put up with this for 14 days?”
Once the stent was in, Merrilee felt an instant change.
“I could feel the pressure disappear,” she says. “All the blood started flowing again.”
Miles to Go
Merrilee went home the next day feeling better, which also describes how she’s felt since the procedure.
“God had another plan for me,” she says. “I am, apparently, not done here. I don’t know why I was spared, but here I am.”
Merrilee is concerned about the possibility of having another heart attack, but she’s taking steps to prevent it. She takes medications to help safeguard her heart, as recommended by her doctor. She has cut back on sugar and is eating more heart-healthy foods. Running and hiking aren’t for her, but she has a newfound passion for pickleball.
Merrilee is grateful for the care she received. She wanted to hug each member of the cath lab team after her procedure, but she had to lie still for several hours to allow the access artery to heal. Several weeks later, she got part of her wish.
“I gave Dr. Almanaseer a hug when I saw him for an appointment,” Merrilee says. “I said, ‘I told you I was going to hug you.’ I thanked him, and he just kept saying, ‘It’s my job.’ That’s true, but not everyone is as good at their job as he is. He’s a good, caring person who does his job well. We’re very lucky to have high-quality cardiac services and specialists of Dr. Almanaseer’s caliber at Altru.”
Published twice a year, Altruism magazine focuses on the people of Altru and our community and the many ways philanthropy advances our mission of enriching health, improving life. For more stories of altruism check out Altruism Magazine.