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Neil Schaffel meets with Nurse Practitioner Irene Childress for the first time since she treated him in the Emergency Department before his quintuple bypass.

An engineer and lawyer by trade, Neil Schaffel has always been his own advocate, intuitive and preventative – especially when it comes to his health. Trusting his instincts – and his providers – has served him well in his 78 years and even helped save his life on more than one occasion.

Neil and his wife Nancy began coming to the mountains in 1972 when Nancy’s parents Arnold and Muriel Rosen were lured to Beech Mountain by Carolina Caribbean’s marketing in south Florida. The Rosens built a house at Beech Mountain and then another family home at Linville Ridge in 1988. Neil and Nancy made Linville Ridge their full-time residence in June 2021 with their beloved miniature Dachshunds, Marcie and Marbles.

During the 1980s the Rosens and Schaffels became involved with Appalachian State University’s Hayes School of Music. The Rosens are even credited with bringing to Boone the idea for the Appalachian Summer Festival, which is still going strong today and continues to draw performers from around the globe. Though the Rosens have both passed away, the Schaffels are still active with the festival.

Listen to your heart

Between coming here in the summers, organizing the festival and being actively involved with their children and grandchildren in Austin, Texas, Neil had his first cardiac event 20 years ago. That was when he learned that he is asymptomatic because he had none of the traditional symptoms. His only clue there was a problem was that he felt something equivalent to a hunger pain in his chest. Because this was odd, he went to a hospital in Florida. There they found a blockage which resulted in two stents and then three more several months later.

Once their granddaughters graduated high school, the Schaffels decided it was time to make Linville Ridge their full-time home. However, shortly after they made it official, Neil was revisited by that nagging feeling that something just wasn’t right.

During the first week of August, 2021 Neil started experiencing indigestion, fatigue, insomnia – and an overall feeling of being, “wiped out.”
On August 12, he took the advice of his body and checked into the Emergency Department at Watauga Medical Center.

“I just knew something was wrong,” Neil remembers. “I walked into the ER and they took me right in the room – there was no delay. They did all the tests. They checked out everything. The labs were fine.”

Usually when someone presents with cardiac symptoms, troponin levels are checked to see if they have had a heart attack. Neil’s troponin levels were normal.

As fate would have it, Irene Childress, a Nurse Practitioner was working in the Emergency Department that evening. And like Neil, Irene is a big believer in listening to her instincts. She also listens to her patients.

“With his history, if he’s saying something isn’t right, I’m believing him,” Irene said. “You learn to take that to heart. He knows himself best. So, something is not right until proven otherwise.”

After working in an emergency department for 10 years, Irene’s experience is that more often than not, cardiac patients present atypically. Irene felt that Neil needed a stress test and insisted that he stay overnight so he could get one first thing the next morning. She made the call to his cardiologist, Dr. Andrew Hordes, who agreed.

Neil remembers he immediately felt confident in Irene’s plan, “From her communication with me and the way she said it – she knew something I didn’t know, and I relied on that. I thought, ‘I’m in their hands.’ I wouldn’t have come here if I didn’t think there was a problem.”

Something was wrong

The next morning, within an hour after a failed chemical stress test, Neil was quickly sent to Watauga Medical Center’s catheterization lab for an angiogram. This determined there were four blocked arteries – one at 30 percent, one at 70 percent and two at 90 percent.

The cardiologist in the cath lab told him he would need bypass surgery, so he was referred to Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. There he had a quintuple bypass, the most intricate heart bypass surgery which includes repairing all five of the major arteries feeding the heart. Neil says the transition and communication between Baptist and WMC was seamless.

“I felt and feel and that the relationship between the facilities was important and comforting,” he said.

Although Irene knew something was wrong when she began treating Neil, she admits even she was surprised by his level of disease, especially after having stents 20 years ago.

As Nancy put it, “he’s an overachiever.”

Restored health, grateful heart

After his quintuple bypass, Neil began cardiopulmonary rehabilitation at the Paul H. Broyhill Wellness Center in Boone. “Dr. Trate is terrific. They’re good people over there,” he said. “The system here is terrific. I love it. I’m very happy here.”

Neil is quick to compliment the providers and services he’s encountered throughout Appalachian Regional Healthcare System, but he maintains a partiality for Irene, who he gives a great amount of credit for listening to him, fast-tracking his care, and helping save his life. As a husband, a father and grandfather of four women, Neil says he is also a big believer in female intuition.

And he advises anyone who will listen, “if you get that feeling that something isn’t right – check it out and don’t hesitate to do it.”

Fortunately, it’s never been easier for patients in the High Country to access heart and vascular intervention and diagnostic services here at home. With three locations, the Heart and Vascular Center of Watauga Medical Center offers services in Watauga, Avery and Ashe counties. This comprehensive service line features a state-of-the-art interventional and cardiac catheterization lab, cardiac diagnostic testing, and a cardiac rehabilitation program.

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