Monmouth, IL,
13:38 PM

Cardiac Survivor: 'I Listened To My Body'

Looking back, Sean Cavanaugh, 48, can’t believe that he felt fine on a Monday in mid-July when he went to work at his job as a marketing director for the Warren Achievement Center in Monmouth. By Friday of that same week, he was on an emergency helicopter flight wondering if he was going to live or die.

Cavanaugh had gotten the stomach flu on Tuesday so he decided to stay home but by Friday he felt like he needed to get back to work so he spent a few hours in the office. That evening, he experienced what he describes as a gas bubble in his chest that wouldn’t go away despite taking over-the-counter medication.

Suddenly, the pain started traveling across his back and down each arm, resting in his elbows. His first thought was to ride it out but after a phone call to his doctor’s office indicated it was after hours, he drove himself to OSF HealthCare Holy Family Medical Center in Monmouth, explained his symptoms, and was rushed into an exam room “in about a minute,” as he recalled.

A chest X-ray didn’t reveal anything. However, a blood test showed elevated levels of an enzyme indicating cardiac distress. Doctor Martha Kelley, who was working in the Emergency Department that night, was concerned enough that she put Cavanaugh on an OSF Lifeflight helicopter to OSF HealthCare Saint Francis Medical Center in Peoria. Cavanaugh admits he suffers from anxiety and it was heightened due to the stress of not knowing his fate.

“I mean I’m scared, not that I was going to die in a month or a year of a terminal illness, I was scared that I was going to die in a minute … like right now,” he said recalling the terror he felt. “To have people around you, they’re expressing their heartfelt care for you means a lot and it meant a lot to me.”


He feared he could die

He appreciates now that Dr. Kelley told him he was being air lifted rather than driven because no ambulances were available at the moment. Cavanaugh later discovered the doctor, who was aware of her patient’s fear of flying and history of anxiety, didn’t want to alarm him. She decided to tell him the no-ambulance-available tale to keep him calm for what would be a 12 minute flight to Peoria.

An MRI revealed Cavanaugh’s stomach virus had affected his heart muscle and gave him the classic symptoms of a heart attack.

“They explained to me that whether you have a virus in your body, whether it be in your tummy, or your finger, or your throat or an ear that it can – for whatever reason – travel to your heart and that’s exactly what happened to me,” he recalled.

Doctor Mark Hsu of OSF Cardiovascular Institute treated Cavanaugh. He said his patient’s story stresses to physicians the importance of knowing a patient’s medical history, including recent issues for which they might not have received professional, medical care. Dr. Hsu also said Cavanaugh’s case is also a reminder for everyone to pay close attention to symptoms that seem above-and-beyond what a person might experience with a common illness.

“If the shortness of breath is worse than a typical flu, worse than a typical cold … if the chest pain is worse, or sharper or more bothersome, then certainly it would be a reasonable thing to get it checked out,” he advised.

View Virus attacked his heart
Virus attacked his heart
View Unusual symptoms
Unusual symptoms

​Cavanaugh spent a few days at OSF Saint Francis where he felt like, as he put it, “the luckiest guy on the cardiac wing” because he was assured his heart would heal over time. His OSF HealthCare doctors in Monmouth have continued to monitor Cavanaugh and he expects to return to full health.

Despite being in a rural community of a little more than 9,400, Cavanaugh is relieved to have competent, compassionate care and a connection to world-class experts for diagnosis and treatment minutes away.

“I was fortunate it wasn’t a heart attack. But it was something that could have been very serious … life-long, altering serious. They took care of business. In a few weeks, I’ll be fit as a fiddle doing one-armed push-ups in the parking lot,” he said with a grin.

Could have been serious

However, the active community leader, who also serves on the Warren County Board, learned that had he not sought treatment immediately, his heart could have suffered permanent damage. In the most severe cases of myocarditis, patients require a heart transplant.

He stressed, “Everyone should listen to their body. If you think there’s something out of the ordinary then go get it checked out. I have insurance so why not use it, that’s what it’s there for.” But he added, “Even if I didn’t have insurance, the cost of an emergency room bill would be better than the cost of a funeral for my family to bear so I think that’s a pretty good trade-off.”

Listen to your body
Life Flight B-Roll