UAB Medicine employee saved after suffering a heart attack at work

Joy Marsh and Rebecca Burke
Rebecca Burke and Joy Marsh

UAB Medicine employees work together daily to save lives, and sometimes it’s for one of their own.

This was the case with Joy Marsh, an administrative support specialist at the UAB Histocompatibility and Immunogenetics Lab, who suffered a heart attack shortly after arriving at work in November 2023. Her coworkers helped transport her to the UAB Emergency Department, then a surgery and cardiology team inserted a tiny tube called a stent to reopen a section of artery that was 100% blocked.

Marsh says some people are surprised that she’s already back on the job. But she’s quick to point out the close relationship she has with her coworkers and the pride she takes in her duties at UAB Medicine. “This is actually where I feel safest,” she said. And with good reason: If she’d been at home 30 minutes away, or if her coworkers hadn’t acted so quickly, Marsh says she might not be here today.

‘A chance at life’

Patients who need organ or bone marrow transplants depend on the work of the Histocompatibility and Immunogenetics Lab, which is part of the UAB Comprehensive Transplant Institute. The lab conducts important testing that reduces the risk of rejection and promotes more successful transplants. A big part of this is making sure that patients are a good match – at the cellular level – with living donors and donor organs. The lab also monitors patients for rejection after transplant, and it performs these same services for the nearby Children’s of Alabama hospital and Birmingham VA Medical Center.

The lab is open 24/7, as transplants are often urgent and unexpected, and they can’t proceed until testing is completed. “Every day we have a running list of patients we need to reach out to, kits that need to be coordinated, and follow-ups,” Marsh said. “As an administrative support specialist, I keep everything moving. It’s not just work – every name is someone wanting a chance at life.”

Since 1997, Marsh has worked in the lab alongside Rebecca Burke, who is now the administrative manager. “I’ve known Joy since I was a bench technologist here,” Burke said. “Our flow and rhythm – counting on each other for work – has become second nature.”

Code Blue

Nov. 16 marked a break in that rhythm. When Marsh got to her building for work that morning, she began feeling nauseous and having trouble breathing, though at first she blamed her asthma. She ducked into a hallway restroom and called Burke, who had just left the hospital cafeteria and was headed to the lab. By the time they met at the entrance, Marsh was sweating, panicked, and feeling faint. Burke used the UAB emergency system to call a Code Blue, which is for possible cardiac or respiratory emergencies.

“I could tell it was startling to them, but my coworkers knew what to do; the training we all have kicked in,” Marsh said. “Rebecca was basically holding me up in my chair while we waited, repeating, ‘I’m not going to let anything happen to you – don’t worry.’” Other co-workers offered comfort and short prayers to calm her.

Two nurses arrived minutes later, and Burke joined them in transporting Marsh to the Emergency Department (ED). Coincidentally, their path through the UAB Hospital North Pavilion took them past a desk where Marsh’s son, Bradley, works as part of the Guest Services team. He joined the group as they proceeded to the ED, where he filled out forms as his mom was being evaluated.

An EKG test determined that she’d had a massive heart attack, so Marsh was moved to an operating room in the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit. “I heard them tell Bradley that they were going to do either a stent or open-heart surgery,” Marsh said. “I really couldn’t believe what I was hearing.”

Fortunately, the stent procedure was successful, so open-heart surgery wasn’t required. Just as the stent was placed, in her twilight state, Marsh recalls telling her surgeon that she was seeing bright lights, to which he replied, “Those are your angels.” He also assured her that the disorientation she was feeling would soon pass: “Give it a minute, don’t panic – this is normal.”

Visits from her work family

Within two hours, some of Marsh’s coworkers visited her hospital room to make sure she was okay. “I’m not sure how to explain what it means when people treat you like family, but I know the difference,” Marsh said. “My coworkers always show up when it counts, and they are really with you for the long haul.”

She couldn’t wait to get back to work. “I had to convince my doctors that my job is not physical, that my manager is flexible about work hours, and that I have the support I need to start back sooner than most people would,” Marsh said. “I work with the transplant program, and those patients’ lives matter just as much as mine did.”

Marsh began easing back into her duties on Nov. 27. Now she’s back at work full-time, having mostly recovered from her ordeal with very little damage to her heart. The eight medications she takes can cause unpredictable side effects, so she rests when needed. “Joy was out just 11 days,” Burke said, “and that was plenty of time for us to really get a wakeup call about how much work she was handling, which helps us all do our best.”

Click here for information on the care provided by the UAB Medicine Cardiovascular Institute, and click here to learn more about the UAB Medicine Comprehensive Transplant Institute.

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