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Taking Action Saved His Life

Sean Gallagher assumed he had COVID-19 when he had trouble breathing, after a few nights with a cough, last May.

“I just didn’t feel good,” he says. “I couldn’t lay down without coughing.”

A former Epping, NH, police officer, who retired after 23 years on the force, and now works in a local credit union’s fraud unit, Gallagher, 49, admits his stubbornness kept him from getting checked right away.

But his wife insisted on driving him to a nearby Urgent Care, where she had to drop him off because of COVID-19 restrictions.

“They thought I was there for COVID testing like everyone else,” Gallagher says. “But once they listened to my heart and took my blood pressure, they wanted to take me by ambulance directly to the ER.”

Even after that news, Gallagher, who hadn’t had significant health problems before, figured it “was some kind of episode” that he’d be treated for and return home “in no time.”

“It started to get really serious for me when (Wentworth-Douglass Hospital’s Emergency Medicine physician) Dr. Lukas Kolm said, ‘You have a loud heart murmur.’ I had never been told that. I knew then this was going to be a longer haul,” says Gallagher.

An echocardiogram and emergency diagnostic cardiac catherization in the catherization lab showed a failed mitral valve in Gallagher’s heart. Things had to move quickly.

Gallagher admits, “It was really a ‘wow’ moment for me,” when Dr. Ahmet Oktay, cardiologist with the Wentworth-Douglass Center for Heart Health, told him he would need open heart surgery. “It was very hard to have to tell my wife that news on the phone instead of in person,” Gallagher says.

Gallagher, who was COVID-19 negative, had to be transported immediately to Massachusetts General Hospital, which, thanks to Wentworth-Douglass being a Mass General Community Hospital, was a particularly smooth transition since both clinical teams work collaboratively.

Still, before being transported, Gallagher insisted he be able to see his wife, Brenda and daughters Ryen, 22, Molly, 18, and Kacey, 10, and stepdaughter Shannon, 32. Gallagher’s aunt, Susan Gallagher, who is the assistant vice president of the Wentworth-Douglass Seacoast Cancer Center, helped arrange for the family, all masked and socially distanced, to be outside for a send-off in the ambulance.

Dr. Serguei Melnitchouk, a cardiac surgeon at Mass General, repaired Gallagher’s valve by replacing multiple broken chords with new artificial chords, as well as placing a semirigid ring around the mitral valve to make it function well again. Although the surgery was successful, Gallagher developed congestive heart failure preoperatively, requiring more cardiac care and five days in the Intensive Care Unit following surgery.

“His course was not easy, given arrhythmias, congestive heart failure, et cetera,” Dr. Melnitchouck says. “Acute severe mitral regurgitation can be fatal and difficult to manage. He was lucky he got through.”

Gallagher agreed. “It was a very harrowing experience when you’ve never been through something like this before,” he says. “Having it happen during the pandemic made it even worse, because I was all on my own. Thankfully, I did have the support of the staff at both hospitals.”

As soon as he could though, Gallagher wanted to get moving again. “I’m a pretty determined guy, so I did what they wanted me to,” he says. “I was up walking and doing physical therapy at the hospital and when I got home, I walked more every day.”

As that got “boring” he added a stationary bike. Not long after, Gallagher transitioned to a road bike – something he had never done before, which he now rides 20 miles a day.

“I probably feel better than I have in 20 some odd years,” Gallagher says. “I don’t think I realized I was that sick because I’m stubborn, and I think everyone wants to dismiss some of the signs that something is wrong.”

Gallagher says he has learned to pay attention to his health and the advice of health professionals.

“I’m a retired police officer,” he says. “That leads you to think you’re the strongest guy around sometimes. But then, when they repaired my heart, I became the most grateful man in the room.”

Learn more about cardiac care at Wentworth Douglass Hospital and the services they offer.

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