‘I was in good hands’

Hillsborough hospital employee and Haw River resident Dennis Clayton has enjoyed working at the new medical facility since 2012 – and after suffering a recent heart attack while at home, he feels fortunate to live nearby.

Dennis Clayton (Photo by Max Englund/UNC Health Care)
Dennis Clayton (Photo by Max Englund/UNC Health Care)

One evening last fall, Dennis Clayton was with his wife, Sharon, at their home in Haw River when a feeling of indigestion set in. Dennis had experienced it before, so he took a couple tablets to relieve the discomfort. Time passed but the feeling only intensified. He decided to try baby aspirin but there was no change.

“I told Sharon, ‘We have to go to the hospital,’” says Dennis, who has worked in Plant Engineering at UNC Hospitals’ Hillsborough medical campus for nearly four years. “The pressure on my chest was so great it was like there was an elephant or something huge sitting on it. I was hoping it wasn’t a heart attack but in my mind I knew it was.”

Dennis and Sharon have lived in Haw River for more than twenty years, a few miles off Interstate 40, west of Mebane, in Alamance County. They got in the car, hopped on the highway, and drove to the Hillsborough hospital, where Dennis had been earlier that day as part of the three-man team that takes care of the HVAC units at the medical facilities.

In the past, if Dennis or Sharon needed to go to the hospital for any reason, they drove to Chapel Hill, taking Highway 54. That drive, familiar to Dennis because he spent five years working at UNC Hospitals before transitioning to the Hillsborough medical campus, took him close to 40 minutes.   

“Part of the reason I moved to the Hillsborough hospital for work was because of its proximity to our house – it’s only about 15 minutes away,” he says. “That night I knew that it would be quicker for us to get to Hillsborough and that the care would be just as good. It’s more convenient for me.”

Sharon pulled up to the front of the Hillsborough Emergency Department. Dennis got out of the car, entered the building, and told the guard and receptionist that his chest was hurting badly and that he thought he was having a heart attack. They immediately brought him a wheelchair and took him into the examining room. After an initial exam, he was moved to another room, where they ran an electrocardiogram of his heart.

“They confirmed that I was having a heart attack,” he says. “After awhile, the nitroglycerine they’d given me wasn’t helping, so they transferred me to Chapel Hill. I’m glad I went in, because they evaluated me quickly, took great care of me, and sent me on for more immediate care. I was in good hands.”

When he arrived in Chapel Hill, it was clear Dennis was going to require surgery on an artery that was 98 percent blocked. So, he went straight from the Chapel Hill Emergency Department to the cardiac catheterization lab for surgery.

“It all happened so quickly,” he says. “But they knew what they needed to do – they had to go in around my groin and blow up one of the veins around my heart and put a stent in.”

The surgery was a success, and two days later he returned home to Haw River. He has since been rehabilitating three times a week, for two hours per session, which has helped him regain his strength. He has also completely changed his diet. He confesses that Thanksgiving and Christmas, while great to be with family, were challenging from a food standpoint.

“No more salt – and I love salt,” he says. “I’m eating more fresh vegetables and staying away from steak and ham and bacon – I don’t eat anything like that anymore. When it comes to meat, it’s just chicken and fish.”

All told he’s lost 22 pounds in the last few months.

“I feel much better,” he confirms. “I’m just thankful to be alive.”

Dennis and Sharon have two children together, and since his heart attack, he's gained even greater appreciation of all that he has. His daughter and two granddaughters live next door to him and Sharon and his son, with whom he enjoys drag-racing, lives in Roxboro.

“We’re a close bunch,” he says. “I was just so happy to have been there with them over the holidays.”

Dennis has to go back for an appointment in a few months because of a leaky valve and three more arteries that are 40 percent blocked. He hopes that medication will help prevent another surgery. In the meantime, he’s glad to be working again at the Hillsborough hospital.

“Everyone in my department was supportive,” he says. “It’s a nice bunch of people working here and everything is state of the art – it’s fun to come to work.”

by Zach Read - zachary.read@unchealth.unc.edu

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