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Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

Tom Anton is lucky to be alive after suffering a massive heart attack in February. He nearly waited too long to go to the hospital, something local physicians say is a common problem. They're urging people to call 911 if they have any inkling they could be having heart problems.

Thomas Anton picked the right place to die: the catheterization lab at the Bakersfield Heart Hospital.

"Any place else, two minutes away from the hospital, he would be dead," said Dr. Brij Bhambi.

Bhambi, an iinterventional cardiologist, brought Anton back from the brink when he suffered a blockage to his left anterior descending coronary artery, also known as a widow maker.

But while the prominent Bakersfield attorney did one thing right -- getting to the Heart Hospital -- he did a big thing wrong.

He'd been feeling unwell for several days before he actually went.

A heart attack isn't something to mess around with, health workers said. People should call 911 if they feel they could be suffering from one.

"Time is muscle with the heart. If you've got blood flow issues to the heart, sometimes there's irreversible damage," said Ross Elliott, director of Kern County's Emergency Medical Services Division.

Elliott is part of a group of clinicians and administrators working on a new countywide system that aims to get people with the most serious type of heart attacks to a hospital that has the right facilities to treat them as fast as possible.

But all the coordination won't help patients who don't call 911 when they feel they could be having a heart attack, the group's members said.

"The whole system can only do so much if the patients do not present on time," said Dr. William Nyitray, an interventional cardiologist.

Anton, 67, hadn't had heart problems before his heart attack in February. He started to feel unwell several days before the incident but he still drove to Los Angeles County for court and brushed off a nagging pain in his shoulder.

But Anton was exhausted when he returned home. He woke up early the next morning, still feeling awful, and went to work. But Anton said he still hadn't experienced what he thought were the signs of a heart attack, like chest pain or sweating.

"I thought I had a tooth infection, to be honest with you, on the left side," he said.

Anton had served as the lawyer for Central Cardiology, a Bakersfield cardiovascular group, so he called and texted a doctor from there.

The doctor commanded him to go to the Heart Hospital. Anton's office manager drove him to the hospital, where he was rushed to the cath lab.

The attorney remembers being in the lab and watching Bhambi be prepped for surgery. Then a black curtain descended.

"My eyelids closed and it was the darkest black I had ever in my life encountered," he said.

When he woke up, Anton asked Bhambi, "What the hell'd you find?"

What Bhambi found was an artery 90 to 95 percent obstructed by a large, hard, calcified blockage.

Anton was gone for two minutes or less and revived with chest compressions and electrical shock to his heart, Bhambi said. The doctor then used angioplasty and two stints to restore blood flow to Anton's heart.

"Fortunately I was at the right place at the right time and in Bhambi's hands," Anton said.

Anton appreciates his luck and has simple advice for others experiencing unusual pain: "Don't wait, that's the number one thing."

Anton said while he may have the "magic phone numbers" of the doctors, everyone has the important number: 911.

Bhambi said people should be aware of their risk factors of a heart attack, including diabetes, smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, being older than 50 and having a history of heart disease themselves or in their family.

The cardiologist said the following symptoms can be signs of a heart attack:

- A suffocating feeling, pressure on the chest

- Radiating discomfort to the neck, jaw or either arm

- Difficulty breathing

- Severe discomfort or pain

- Excessive sweating

- A cold, clammy sensation

- Nausea and vomiting

- Feeling faint or fainting

- A sense of impending doom

The symptoms may be more subtle in women and elderly people.

Bhambi said the lesson to be learned from Anton's experience is that "when the body is sending you signals, speed is of the essence and don't be lackadaisical."