The following piece was written by Wood River Health's Chief Medical Officer Dr. Jonathan Gates and published in the Westerly Sun in February 2023.
This is a true story for Heart Health Month: February. I hope that it relates to most everyone in a way that gives both insight and motivation to act in their own, and in their family’s, best interests.
It was a crisp spring day, the kind when the sun warms you and you shiver in the shade. Sixteen at the time, I hopped off the bus at the opening of the dead-end street I grew up on. My grandmother had moved into the house next door after a close call with a minor stroke, which lead to the surgical ‘roto-cleaning’ of her left carotid artery. It went well. I knocked on the sunroom door and waited, noting that her off-white Volkswagen Rabbit was in the driveway, and hoping for a novel Betty Crocker confection; she was a cook, “like Julia Childs,” she’d say.
She didn’t answer, though, and I became concerned. I actually pulled a screen off a window and “broke in”; why exactly, I don’t know to this day. Mormor, as we happily called her, Swedish for “your mother’s mother”, was not watching Judge Wapner deal out real justice. She was lying down in her sewing room, pale – sweaty even – and had been sick. At 83, she told me she wasn’t going anywhere. So, I called her family practitioner – it was easier then – and two symptoms into my story, he said “She has to come to the ER.”
I brought around the family Econoline and a step to get Mormor over to South County’s emergency department where she was treated successfully for her heart attack and the 3rd degree heart block that slowed her pulse so low, she had become nauseated and lightheaded. She did not, for the record, have “chest pain”.
If I hadn’t fully been on the path to medical school, this was a crystallizing event. I knew the fear of not knowing what I didn’t know, and the immense relief of a physician’s words and an ER’s prompt response. Today, of course, we dial 911 for an ambulance – with EMTs to take over with training and medication where a high school student once knew no better. Or maybe Mormor wouldn’t let me call an ambulance. I can’t recall now.
It’s Heart Health Month. I share this story with you because when it comes to your heart and your brain, everything is “fine” until it definitely is not. Today, more people are obese, sit for long periods at work and at home, and even in the best studies we find that taking medications as prescribed gets a letter grade of “B” (80%). What can we all do?
Look to your family and friends, talk about health, and shoot for a sensible “Mediterranean”-like diet. Purposefully plan time with others, call people regularly, and stay “in-touch”. Walk every day. See – have! – a primary care provider (PCP), nurse practitioner, physician’s assistant. Ask your PCP if your medications can be made simpler and once a day and ask for a 90 day supply at a time.
Preventing and maintaining heart health goes a long way to also halting diabetes, strokes and other unnecessary troubles. Oh, and if there’s one thing you do that helps more than the rest, it’s quitting smoking – and the medications really help.
About Dr. Gates
A South County native, Jonathan Gates, MDCM has served as Wood River Health’s Chief Medical Officer since January 2023. He trained at McGill University Faculty of Medicine and completed residency at Maine Medical Center in Portland, Maine. Board certified in Internal Medicine, he formerly served as Chief Medical Officer for Accountable Care at Providence Community Health Centers. During his tenure, Dr. Gates garnered over $24 million in net-new Medicaid revenue for the center while increasing patient safety and equity of health care access using proactive care management and flexible processes for primary care teams.