University of Miami Hospital sends team to Panama to save NCIS agent’s life

Avid runner Noel Zuniga had just finished his daily run when he began experiencing chest pains.

It was 6:30 p.m. on March 17 and Zuniga, an NCIS agent in charge for the U. S. Embassy in Panama, had returned days earlier from a snorkeling trip. He had a healthy, active lifestyle.

But that wouldn’t matter when the chest spasms started.

What he thought was a muscle spasm would change his life drastically within the next 24 hours.

“Right after I was done, I got this excruciating pain in my chest and it just sort of spread.”

He immediately called his wife, Diana, who called an ambulance. He was transported to Hospital Nacional in Panama where it was confirmed that Zuniga was having an acute heart attack.

Doctors discovered a blockage, which they were able to open with a stent and an angioplasty — common procedures used to treat blocked heart arteries — but it wasn’t enough.

He was experiencing multiple organ failure and was given a 20 percent chance of survival.

“Noel’s heart was just not functioning at the rate that they assumed it would and they did not give him much time to live,” Diana Zuniga said.

Jonathan Farrar, U.S. ambassador to Panama, and the embassy community began reaching out to hospitals in the States that could potentially save Zuniga’s life.

Cardiac experts at the University of Miami Hospital immediately responded.

Within six hours, a two-person medical team, including cardiologist Carlos Alfonso, were on their way to Panama.

They implanted a special device called an Impella pump, and accompanied Zuniga to UMH. Alfonso was accompanied by medical specialist Pedro Tages.

The Impella pump temporarily takes over the heart and maintains blood flow. It gives a sick heart sufficient time to rest and recover.

UMH was a primary site for a nationwide clinical trial of the pump before the Food and Drug Administration approved it for use.

“This is really the first time we mobilized something like this,’’ Alfonso said. “Fortunately we’ve had experience with the device and we had a team. [Zuniga] was fortunate enough to even make it to the hospital.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 715,000 Americans suffer a heart attack each year.

Alfonso said about 500,000 individuals die each year from the type of heart attack Zuniga had.

Besides multiple organ failure, Zuniga also suffered from cardiogenic shock — where the heart is not strong enough to pump the amount of blood the body needs to survive. According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, only about 7 percent of people who have suffered these attacks develop this condition. It is fatal if not treated immediately.

The first three weeks of Zuniga’s recovery were “very very touch and go,” said Alan Heldman, a cardiologist at UMH.

He was in the hospital’s intensive care unit until mid-April and is currently undergoing cardiac rehabilitation. His improvement is steady but slow.

“A heart attack, no matter how severe, ought to be a survivable event, in most cases,” Heldman said. “We have so many options now for supporting a sick heart.’’

As for Zuniga, he continues to improve and is doing “fantastic these days,” he says. He is excited about going back to Panama and seeing his children, who he and his wife have been Skyping with almost every night.

“The staff here has been nothing short of miraculous,’’ Zuniga said. “And I say that because they not only treat the condition, they treat the human spirit.”

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