THOMASTON, Maine — Tony Leo has a clear and strong message after nearly dying from a heart attack: listen to your body and be your own advocate.
Leo, a veteran firefighter and emergency medical technician for Thomaston, said he was stubborn and ignored symptoms. He also said, however, that some local medical professionals also did not take his symptoms seriously enough and that it almost cost him his life.
At 39 years old with no history of heart problems in his family, Leo said he ignored symptoms that he now realizes he should have recognized.
Leo’s full-time job outside of the fire and EMS departments is plowing snow. His family has a long history of serving the community. His father is the fire chief, his uncle is on the EMS staff, and his brother serves as an assistant fire chief in Rockland and Thomaston.
Leo said he began tiring easily last summer and got short of breath. Then shortly before Christmas, he was getting ready to respond to a rollover car crash.
“I felt like there was an explosion in my chest and that it was on fire,” Leo said.
But the pain went away and he went on the call. Then those incidents became more frequent, occurring when he would respond to calls. Then a week or so later, he had another episode while sitting in his recliner chair at home. This time, he also had dry heaves.
He said he contacted his doctor’s office the following day and told staffers about his symptoms. He was given an appointment nearly a month away.
A few weeks later, Leo was driving a truck in St. George and experienced such pain and burning that he decided to head to the emergency room at Pen Bay Medical Center in Rockport. The intensity of the pain worsened to the point that he pulled the truck over at the Rockland Public Safety building at 2 a.m. and had the emergency personnel there take him the rest of the way to the hospital.
He was given a dose of nitroglycerin which made the pain go away. He was given an electrocardiogram that showed no problem and was released the following day. He then contacted his doctor again and when no appointment was available for two to three weeks he agreed to see another physician in the practice.
The doctor prescribed him more nitro and said she would schedule him for a stress test. When he had not heard back in a few days he called and was told the earliest appointment was about a month away. Leo said he became adamant that waiting that long was not acceptable. The next day, he received a call that there was a cancellation and he was able to get the stress test on Jan. 28. He was on the treadmill for only about four minutes when he had to stop because he was so short of breath and his heart rate was up to 190 beats per minute.
The diagnosis was that his heart was fine but that he was experiencing spasms in his esophagus and that the nitro was relieving that pain.
Three days after the stress test, he was plowing snow in St. George during one of the blizzards when a serious bout of the pain and burning began. He took a nitro tablet and continued working but this time the medicine gave no relief.
Though clad in only a T-shirt he said the sweat was dripping off him and he realized he was having a heart attack. He telephoned for an ambulance and the phone was answered by his best friend who directed him to pull the truck over immediately. The friend said an ambulance would be sent to him right away. Leo admitted he was stubborn and said he would meet the crew at the garage because he didn’t want to leave the truck on the side of the road during a storm.
When he got to the garage, he was met by the ambulance crew that included his uncle Alan Leo. He was taken to Pen Bay and then driven by ambulance in the storm to Maine Medical Center in Portland.
Tests ultimately showed that his left anterior descending artery was 98 percent blocked. His cardiologist told him the nickname of the condition is the “widowmaker” because it will seldom be detected by EKGs or stress tests. It takes an angiogram, in which dye is inserted into blood vessels so the arteries can be viewed by an imaging machine, to detect the condition.
“The doctor was matter of fact and that he was giving me a second lease on life,” Leo said. “I started crying like a baby.”
When a stent was inserted into the blocked artery, Leo said he immediately felt better than he had prior to the previous summer.
Since his brush with death, Leo has altered his lifestyle. While he used to smoke two to three packs of cigarettes a day, he has quit. He has eliminated sodas and white bread from his diet and cut back on pasta and fried foods. He said everyone has helped pitch in to help him in his recovery. He said Ryan Jones, the co-owner of the Thomaston Cafe has shown him how whole grain breads are better than the white bread he use to eat.
Leo got the approval from his doctors to return to work in the emergency medical services and he began that again Thursday. He hopes to return to firefighting in another few weeks. Firefighting can involve more strenuous work, such as hauling hoses, he said, which is why he has been told he needs to wait a few more weeks.
The experience also left him with a load of debt. Leo was soon to get health insurance through the Affordable Care Act but had not completed the paperwork, he said. The bill from Maine Medical Center alone was $56,000.
The Thomaston Fireman’s Association is raising money to assist Leo with his medical expenses. Donations can be sent to the Thomaston Fireman’s Association at P.O. Box 299, Thomaston, ME 04861. The association also will give people who donate $20 a T-shirt and pint glass. Donors can order the items at tinyurl.com/tfdshirts.
“Tony has been a mentor for many people in the fire and emergency medical services departments,” association member Chris Winters said. “Tony has also always been there when other people in the service have had health problems so we wanted to so something for him.”
Leo said his message to other people is to not ignore health symptoms and trust your knowledge of your body despite what a doctor may say.