The heart attack that came out of nowhere image
Rick Dickson displays his pulse oximeter at home. He says a low oxygen level reading on the oximeter tipped him off to the heart attack he had four years ago. That reading was key to the quick action and subsequent open-heart surgery that saved his life.

Former City of Houston Liaison Rick Dickson suffered a heart attack four years ago. He is certain that a reading from the pocket-sized pulse Oximeter he purchased at a local pharmacy is the reason he is alive today.

Four years ago, Rick Dickson suffered a heart attack which resulted in him needing immediate open-heart surgery.  That was during the COVID-19 pandemic. He said he might not be here today if it weren’t for his pulse oximeter.

Dickson, who served as a City of Houston community liaison during former Mayor Lee Brown’s tenure, said he realized there was a problem when his pulse oximeter registered a low oxygen rate.

“My heart wasn’t beating that fast, but my oxygen level was 80. I got up and called Kelsey-Seybold Clinic and told the nurse what was happening. She said you need to go to the hospital,” said Dickson, who lived in Humble at the time. “I got dressed, took a shower, woke my wife up and we drove to St. Luke’s Hospital. We didn’t know where the emergency room was, so I got out of the car and started walking. Never in any pain and calm as a judge.”

Dickson didn’t know what would follow his arrival at the hospital, but it was all thanks to a life-saving device that easily fits in a pocket.

So, what exactly is a pulse oximeter? It’s a small electronic device that clamps on an index finger to measure the body’s oxygen levels carried in blood cells. It can be purchased at most local pharmacies for less than $20.

Photo of Rick DicksonAccording to the American Lung Association website, the Food and Drug Administration in February 2021 issued an alert on limitations of pulse oximeters. Poor circulation, dark skin pigmentation, thick skin, use of tobacco, or a cooler skin temperature may result in the pulse oximeter indicating inaccurate or inconsistent readings.

Inaccurate or inconsistent readings may also occur if someone has dark fingernail polish, long, artificial nails or if fingers are not clean.

Numbers from a pulse oximeter should not be used in isolation to determine one’s state of health, the website said, adding that it is important to share readings that are abnormal or inconsistent with your healthcare provider.

Dickson said he maintained a healthy lifestyle, was physically active, and maintained a healthy diet before his heart attack.

“The heart attack came out of nowhere,” he said. “I worked out three days a week lifting weights and rode the exercycle for 30-minutes on Level 8 three times a week.”

Still, that mattered little the morning of Aug. 13, 2020. After arriving at the hospital, Dickson said emergency room medical personnel checked him out and did blood work and other tests. His wife was sitting outside on a bench when a nurse walked up to her and said she needed to go home.

“The nurse said she would send her home because I wasn’t. She said, ‘You’re having a heart attack.’ I took it with a grain of salt,” Dickson said. “I wouldn’t have thought I’d have been this calm.”

Dickson said doctors first put him in a private adjoining room in the ER. They were about to move him to a private hospital room, but there was a change of plan. The doctor said they would operate immediately.

“The doctor said he was going to operate on me right now and they carried me to the operating room,” he said. “The doctor cut me on the right wrist at the radial artery and went up through my arm and into my heart. They discovered I had a severe blockage of the ‘widow-maker,’ which is the coronary artery that supplies the entire body with blood. He had to get a drill to get out all the plaque. The first one wasn’t big enough, so they got a bigger drill to put in two stints.”

Dickson said he stayed in the hospital for two days before being released. “I was somewhat medicated and didn’t feel much,” he explained. “This is not something that you’re used to. It’s completely foreign, so you don’t know what’s happening, what to expect, whether it’s normal, etc. Whenever I got up to walk, I was going by rote memory, doing whatever they told me to.”

Dickson said he still maintains an active life. He and his wife have moved to a gated community, and he gets together with friends to play friendly games of poker.

But Dickson remains certain that the oximeter saved his life.

“It costs about $20, and it not only checks your pulse but it checks your oxygen. It’s portable. It’s small and you can carry it with you wherever you go,” he said. “It wasn’t my heart rate that sent me to the hospital, but my oxygen levels. It was 80%, and the doctors don’t want it below 93.”

And it’s not just for people with heart issues.

“Even if you’re healthy, keep one with you,” Dickson said. “There is very little that will precipitate an oxygen alert. When I took my reading that morning, I wasn’t aware I was having an oxygen problem, but I was. That’s what turned the deal.”