William and Alice-Kaye Fuller celebrated their 55th wedding anniversary just 10 days before Valentine’s Day this year. This anniversary was more special than most for the retired Alabama Department of Transportation civil engineer and his wife, both Opelika natives.
In October 2016, Fuller was at physical therapy after having a knee surgery just days before, when he started having shortness of breath. He was rushed to the Emergency Department at EAMC and it was determined that he had suffered a mild heart attack.“
“The knee surgery went great,” Fuller remembers. “I had no pain or problems at all. When I started rehab I had shortness of breath and I really don’t remember much after that.” After an emergency heart catheterization performed by Michael Williams, M.D., in the EAMC Cath Lab, it was determined that Fuller had a scarred aortic valve and had blockages in all of the major heart arteries, which would require open-heart surgery.
“We replaced his aortic valve and performed coronary artery bypass,” Trey Brunsting, M.D., cardiac and thoracic surgeon at EAMC, explains. “He was already physically depleted from the knee surgery that he had only one week before, and that made his recovery difficult. He had some tough days.”
Dr. Brunsting credits Fuller’s positive attitude and his active lifestyle as major factors in his recovery. “If he had not been the active person and avid cyclist that he was, his recovery would have been even more difficult,”
Dr. Brunsting adds. “His physical and mental fortitude gave him the strength to recover from multiple procedures.”
Fuller was in the hospital for five weeks before returning home the week before Thanksgiving. He remembers having good days and bad days. “I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2003,” Fuller says. “That’s why I started cycling so much, and my wife and I would even bike together. Having to stay in the hospital so long was hard, but my care was great—that’s what I remember most; the doctors, nurses and everyone else who took such great care of me.”
Fuller remembers one day when Barry Crowe, M.D., the other cardiac and thoracic surgeon at EAMC, stopped by to check in on him. “My wife and I joke that Dr. Crowe gave me a ‘sermon,’” Fuller says. “He pushed me to have a good attitude and helped me focus on getting well, as did everyone
involved in my care—they really motivated me. Dr. Crowe told me that he understood that I had been through a lot, but that I was good now. He said, ‘now it’s up to you—it’s all mental now and it’s up to you.’”
Dr. Brunsting notes that everyone in the department works together as a team and that the team works hard to foster a wellness model. “We don’t look at our patients as being sick,” Dr. Brunsting says. “We view them as being well with a problem that can be fixed. We encourage them to resume their regular activities and lifestyle as quickly as they can. It also helps when a patient views their situation as temporary and that it will improve over time.
"The wellness model is important, especially with the mild depression that often comes with recovering from heart surgery. Fostering a positive attitude in our patients goes a long way in their recovery. The team approach is also vital with everything that we do. Everybody has a role to play and if we communicate and share our goals as a team, it is much easier and less confusing for the patient.”
“All the people who cared for us were so kind,” Mrs. Fuller remembers. “It was such a shock knowing William would have open-heart surgery just a week after his knee replacement, but all the physicians were so understanding. My husband was a member of the EAMC Auxiliary for eight years and volunteered in the Cath Lab, so he knew many of the doctors
and staff already. Everyone involved in our care was great—I was never afraid to ask the doctors questions and they were so real and honest with us during such a scary time. One weekend, Dr. Brunsting came in on a football weekend wearing an Auburn shirt and we loved that—we became so attached to the entire team during those five weeks. We knew that the doctors truly cared about us and they wanted my husband to get better as much as we did. They did absolutely everything they could do to help us get better.”
After five weeks at EAMC, the Fullers were able to return home. Now, Fuller is attending cardiac rehab and is able to use the stationary bike. “My husband is a miracle,” Mrs. Fuller says. “It was really touch and go for a while there, and there were many hard days—but now we’re here at cardiac rehab and he’s getting stronger every day. He’s a fighter and he is so determined to get back on his bike one day.”