The story of how a medical device called an Impella saved Bryan Woodell’s life begins on the 10th hole at Olde Sycamore Golf Plantation.

It’s April 30, a sunny Friday. Woodell and his son, Carson, are enjoying 18 holes at the course near their Mint Hill home. Paired with two men they didn’t know – Woodell isn’t sure they ever learned what eventually unfolded – father and son finish nine holes. Woodell, 54, grabs a hot dog and chips at the turn. (That’s golf parlance for the halfway point.) As he heads to the 10th hole, he starts to feel a twinge in his left shoulder.

Teeing off on the par four, 393-yard hole, Woodell blows his drive. For his second shot, he lays up in front of a creek. By now, the pain has spread to both shoulders. He hits a worm-burner, a shot that never gets airborne. By this point, the pain has spread, this time to another part of his body. As he recalls: “It was like an elephant on my chest. I knew I was in trouble. I told Carson, ‘We need to go right now.’” They race back to their car in the golf cart, intending to drive to the ER. They don’t get far. Woodell tells his son, “You need to call 911 right now.”

Today, more than two months after nearly dying from a massive heart attack with cardiac arrest, Woodell asks the question that only the fortunate among us get to ask on the other side of a brush with death.

“Why me?”

The answer?

Because the world’s smallest heart pump – the Impella – is available to save lives at Novant Health Matthews Medical Center.

‘It keeps the patient alive’

Chokkalingam Mani_Bhalaghuru_Head_web
Dr. Bhalaghuru Chokkalingam Mani

On the way to the Matthews hospital, Woodell received CPR four times in the ambulance. This involved a defibrillator administering an electroshock to jolt his heart. Dr.  Bhalaghuru Chokkalingam Mani, an interventional cardiologist at Novant Health Heart & Vascular Institute - Matthews, was the physician on call when Woodell arrived at the hospital around 2 p.m. In a case like this, the doctor said, odds of survival are less than 20%.

At the hospital, physicians first opened up Woodell’s blocked arteries. While a ventilator supported his breathing, they inserted two stents and administered 10 electroshocks.

Once Woodell was stabilized, physicians determined that the initial event was so major that his heart demanded more support. Enter the Impella. In a procedure that took 40 minutes, Chokkalingam Mani inserted the device in Woodell’s leg to improve his blood flow.

In use since 2008, the Impella is the width of a pencil. The device is inserted via a standard catheterization and restores blood flow temporarily while the patient receives the appropriate care. More than 170,000 patients have benefited from the Impella in the United States. That includes Woodell and seven others at Novant Health Matthews Medical Center. (The Impella is manufactured by Abiomed, a medical device company based in Danvers, Massachusetts.)

Chokkalingam Mani is one of three physicians in Matthews trained to insert the Impella. For his team, it is a point of pride.

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“It’s amazing we’re able to have the Impella program at a 157-bed community hospital at the speed and efficiency you’d see at a major urban medical care center,” he said. “It keeps the patient alive while we fix the problem, which is opening up the blocked artery.”

With Woodell now stable, the next step was getting him on the proper medication and giving him time to rest. The goal was to wean him off the Impella as he regained his strength.

On May 3, out of an abundance of caution, Woodell was transferred to Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center, where, as Chokkaligam Mani said, “He did wonderfully well.” On May 5, the Impella was removed. On May 12 – 12 days after an ambulance rescued him from the golf course – Woodell returned home.

‘It ran my heart for me’

Under the watchful eye of his wife, Robin, and their two children, Carson, 28, and Savannah, 25, Woodell continues to rest and recuperate. He’s doing cardio rehab. All that red meat and salt he used to consume? Not so much anymore, except for the steak he had on the Fourth of July, his first since the heart attack. “But it was small,” he notes. He walks daily, often in the morning and at night. He’s back at work as managing director for a financial services agency, though from home, careful not to stress out over a meeting or memo.

Woodell praises everyone at Novant Health who played a part in his being here today. Looking back on the care he received, he understands the role that the Impella played. “It ran my heart for me.”

An ardent Christian, he’s praying over the “why me?” question. As he puts it, “Why did God choose to leave me here for my family?” He’s not sure of the answer. But he’s made a promise to himself: He’s going to make the most of the time he’s been given.

He’s made another promise to himself.

“I will never set foot on that 10th hole again.”

Photo caption: Bryan Woodell, at home five weeks after his heart attack. He went from 267 pounds to the 230s in that time span. Today he's at 225 and working to lose more.