Ernie's Story

Heart & Vascular Care
“We are very thankful to all the people that prayed for Ernie and to God for what we consider a miracle, that Ernie is still here with us.”

Pumping new life into his heart

In 2019, Ernie Heinen, 66, of Richmond went to the emergency room 14 times, often enough to know the doctors by name.

His atrial fibrillation (AFib) was getting worse and it was taking a toll on his life. A few years back, he sold his farm because shortness of breath limited his ability to stay on top of everything that needed to get done. Yet, he continued to drive tractor and combine for his neighbor.

“I love driving tractors,” said Ernie. “I never minded work. Some people might get bored cutting 100 acres of hay, but I like doing it. It’s a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day.”

But last year Ernie was getting too sick to even drive tractor.

In August, Ernie received a pacemaker, which helped, but didn’t entirely fix his problems. A subsequent test found 70-90% blockage in all the main arteries of his heart. His heart muscles were weak, and the situation was further complicated by a badly leaking mitral valve. He was in chronic congestive heart failure.

“With this knowledge, we were very worried about him,” said Ernie’s wife, Kay. “Our six grown children wouldn’t leave him at home alone because we were afraid he’d have a major heart attack. He wasn’t supposed to exert himself at all, meaning no steps or anything like that.”

Ernie was scheduled for open heart surgery Nov. 1 with Cardiac Surgeon John Castro, MD, CentraCare Heart & Vascular Center. “I was ready for the surgery,” said Ernie. “I knew it had to be done because the way it was going, I wouldn’t have much longer to live. I told myself, if I survive this, I’d buy a new John Deere Gator to replace the one stolen in the beginning of October.”

Generally, a five-to-six-hour surgery, Ernie’s surgery took 11 hours, ending at 6 p.m. “Even though Ernie survived the quadruple bypass and mitral valve replacement, Dr. Castro wasn't giving us any guarantees,” said Kay. “He said Ernie’s heart was extremely enlarged and had scar tissue consistent with numerous previous heart attacks. It was in shock, injured and compromised. Dr. Castro said that the next 24 hours were critical.”

Doctors and staff continued to work on Ernie in the intensive care unit (ICU). Ernie’s blood pressure remained low and they couldn’t get his heart to beat effectively. An intra-aortic balloon pump that was placed during surgery was not enough. At midnight, they determined he would need an Impella heart pump. In use at St. Cloud Hospital since 2013, this tiny pump pulls blood from the heart and pushes it to the vital organs of the body, allowing the heart to rest and recover from surgery.

Ernie’s heart needed the assistance of the pump for an intense three days. An extra cardiac ICU nurse was on hand just to attend to the Impella pump in addition to the ICU nurse. “All of Ernie’s cares were catered to the pump,” said Kay. “It needed to work to save his life.”

Ernie woke on the seventh day and made a remarkably fast recovery. After being in Cardiac Rehab for the past two months, Ernie said he didn’t remember feeling so good. “I was weak and short of breath for so long, I didn’t know what normal was. Before this, I couldn’t walk the length of my house.”

“We are very thankful to all the people that prayed for Ernie and to God for what we consider a miracle, that Ernie is still here with us,” said Kay.

This spring Ernie looks forward to doing fieldwork again… and driving his new John Deere Gator.