Dennis Barbour never thought he was the kind of person who would have a heart attack. Living in Carolina Beach, he’s always stayed active, particularly with fishing, his favorite way to spend his time. As a business owner and highly involved community member, a former Carolina Beach mayor and town council member, he’s used to running on all cylinders. A heart issue wasn’t even on his radar.

But in June 2023, Barbour’s perspective changed forever. He was one of about 800,000 individuals in the U.S. to suffer from a heart attack last year. What surprised him the most, he said, was that until the event, he felt fine. And if it hadn’t been for his wife’s urging, he probably would have ignored his symptoms.

Today, Barbour is back to spending as much time as possible casting his reel on his boat, and he credits his cardiology team with getting him back on the water.

Recover from a cardiac event in a supportive environment, guided by experts.

Learn more

“I didn’t feel like I’d had a heart attack”

For 50 years, Barber, 73, has owned a home six blocks away from the ocean at Carolina Beach. On the day of the cardiac event, he crouched to pour chemicals into his pool. When he stood up, he felt tightness and pain in his chest, and his breath grew short.

He brushed off the idea that it could be anything serious, since he’d never experienced heart problems before. “I’d worked hard the day before and had been feeling fine,” he said.

But Barbour’s wife, Wanda, was concerned and convinced him to go to an urgent care clinic, where a clinician discovered his blood pressure was high while his heart rate was low. She recommended he go to a second clinic to receive an electrocardiogram (EKG) to check for heart problems. At the clinic in Wilmington, a clinician completed the EKG and said, you need to get to Novant Health New Hanover Regional Medical Center right away. But Barbour was still not convinced.

“I was feeling much better by this time,” Barbour said. “I asked her, ‘Can’t this wait until tomorrow?’ She said, ‘No.’”

Barbour’s son, Wes, drove him to the hospital, where he received immediate attention in the emergency room: another EKG and bloodwork.

The ER physician returned with the news: Barbour had, indeed, suffered a heart attack and would need to be admitted to the hospital to receive cardiac catheterization, a test that evaluates heart problems, the following day. Barbour was shocked.

Even the following day, while resting after his diagnostic tests, Barbour thought to himself that he would probably be going home in a day or two. But the surprises kept coming.

Double bypass surgery

The catheterization revealed that Barbour had two blockages in the coronary arteries of his heart: one at 80% and the other at 90%. He would need double bypass surgery, an open-heart procedure.

He still had trouble getting his head around it all. “I would have thought that if you had that bad of blockages, you would be feeling a lot worse than I felt at that time,” he said.

Dr. Marks
Dr. Marks

During a double bypass, a surgeon removes veins from the leg and arteries from the arm or inside the chest. After cutting through the breastbone to access the heart, the surgeon then sews the veins and arteries in place in the heart to create new blood pathways around the blockages.

Dr. Howard Fisher Marks from Novant Health Heart & Vascular Institute – Wilmington Main completed the surgery two days later. Barbour has no memory of any pain or discomfort with the surgery. What Barbour didn’t know at the time was that his biggest challenge was still ahead of him: his recovery.

A heart-stopping experience

One fascinating aspect of a double bypass is that the heart must be temporarily stopped for the procedure to be performed. Dr. William Buchanan, Barbour’s current cardiologist, said technology temporarily works in place of the heart while the surgeon operates.

William Buchanan
Dr. Buchanan

“Once the heart is exposed, the patient is placed on a cardiopulmonary bypass machine, which circulates oxygenated blood throughout the body,” Buchanan explained.

Of course, stopping the heart muscle for a period is hard on the body. “It is very common for patients to feel terrible after this type of surgery,” Buchanan said. “The body takes time to recover … but most patients recover quickly.”

Barbour spent three days in the intensive care unit, and another three days in a hospital room. While he described everything up to this point as “pleasant” and “mild,” his last three days in the hospital were a contrast. “It was probably the worst I had felt in my life,” he said. “It was nothing that I had anticipated going through.”

As his breastbone began to heal, Barbour’s upper mobility was limited. He had no desire to walk, and he was saddened by his own lack of motivation. Would he ever get back to fishing?

But Barbour’s team of cardiac doctors, nurses and clinicians knew exactly what he needed to aid in his recovery and reassured him it would be temporary. Barbour began to take small steps in the hospital, with the help of a walker, while his care team accompanied him.

After his discharge and four weeks of recuperating at home, Barbour was ready to begin cardiac rehabilitation.

Healing the heart and more

Cardiac rehab, a combination of medically supervised exercise and heart-health education, is designed to improve cardiovascular strength after a cardiac surgery or event, leading to sustainable good-health practices. And this is just one reason why cardiac rehabilitation is so important.

“There is also a significant psychological benefit to patients as they recover,” Buchanan explained.

Barbour attended cardiac rehab at New Hanover Regional Medical Center for three one-hour sessions a week, for 12 weeks. During his first visit, his clinicians asked what he wanted to be able to do in 12 weeks. For Barbour, the answer was easy: “I want to go fishing.” With this specific goal in mind, Barbour and his rehab team customized a program to get him there.

He started off with walking on a treadmill or pedaling a stationary bicycle for 15-20 minutes at a time. Gradually, Barbour’s rehab team increased the amount of resistance on the equipment as he worked out.

As Barbour’s exercise regimen increased, so did his confidence. And he grew relationships, too.

“It was more than just a nurse trying to take care of me. We became friends,” Barbour said. “They were very attentive and very understanding.”

After Barbour finished cardiac rehab in September, flounder season opened, a coveted window of only two weeks when you can cast for the tasty fish.

“I fished three days of flounder season back-to-back,” Barbour said. “Rehab took me from the worst I had felt in my life to where I felt better than I did prior to the heart attack. The whole process was the best part of my recovery.”

For anyone beginning cardiac rehab, Barbour’s advice is to keep an open mind, and, of course, an open heart.

“Do what they say to do, and push yourself,” Barbour said. “It’s all a matter of how much you want to improve and how far you want to get.”