PAMF Health Blog

Be Well, Be Well Informed

Doctor’s Meticulous Care Saves a Hero’s Life

Posted on Sep 29, 2011


Firefighters are usually the ones to save lives. But for firefighter Randy Kelly, it was his family medicine doctor, Dr. Jeffrey Walton, who saved his.

In October 2009, Kelly, who has been a San Francisco Bay Area firefighter for the last 10 years, was in great shape. As well as the outstanding physical fitness required for his job, he was also training for an upcoming trail marathon in Susanville.

“I was at a training class for work and experienced terrible shooting pains in my temples and felt incredibly weak – I had never felt anything like this before,” says Kelly, recalling the moment he knew something was terribly wrong with his health.

He headed over to the local hospital emergency room where he was tested thoroughly, but nothing was found. Kelly was told to follow up with his regular doctor.

Luckily, he heeded this advice and shortly afterwards, went to see his PAMF family medicine doctor, Jeffrey Walton, M.D., at the Palo Alto Center.

Dr. Walton examined Kelly thoroughly and picked up a heart murmur that he’d not heard previously. He immediately scheduled Kelly for an echocardiogram (ECG or EKG) test, an ultrasound used to examine the heart.

Kelly had no idea how this simple test ordered by his family medicine doctor would impact his life. He went to the Palo Alto Center cardiac lab for the scheduled echocardiogram and was surprised when the technician suddenly stopped the examination, called her boss to take a look, who then contacted PAMF cardiologist Joel Friedman, M.D.

Dr. Friedman told Kelly that he had an aortic dissection. This rare but serious condition results from a tear in the inner layer of the aorta, the largest artery in the heart that runs from the heart to the stomach. If the aorta ruptures completely, which could happen at any time, it can be fatal.

“When I heard the diagnosis, it was like a punch in the stomach,” Kelly remembers. “As a trained paramedic I knew this was extremely serious. I thought, ‘this is it…I’m dying.'”

Dr. Friedman told Kelly to head over to Stanford hospital without delay, as he would need immediate life-saving surgery.

“Everyone – the technician, her boss and Dr. Friedman – were very calming and supportive but wanted to make sure that I knew I had to take immediate action,” says Kelly.

Although Kelly knew the clock was ticking, he wanted to take care of some very important things first. He drove to the firehouse to let his chief know, to his parent’s home in Redwood City , and then he made a call to one other very special person.

“I called Wendy,” says Kelly. “We’d been great friends for quite awhile. I thought she was beautiful but way out of my league.”

“At this point in my life I was pretty sure that I wasn’t going to survive this and that I had nothing to lose, so I told her that I loved her. There’s nothing like heart surgery to help you realign your priorities! She told me she loved me, too.”

Kelly underwent two surgeries when the first operation to repair the aorta failed and was then replaced during a second surgical procedure. After two-and-a-half weeks in hospital he was well enough to go home.

He married Wendy a year later.

“The day I had the echocardiogram I was scheduled to work afterwards,” remembers Kelly.

“If I had been called out to help at a major car accident or fire, the strain probably would have ruptured my aorta. Not only would that have killed me instantly, but it would also have endangered the life of many other people.”

Kelly can’t thank Dr. Walton enough for detecting his heart murmur the day he went to see him.

“Although it’s hard to say that you like going to the doctor, it’s always good going to see Dr. Walton,” says Kelly. “He’s a great guy, very thorough, and I trust him implicitly. The guy saved my life!”