Not all heart attacks are the same, and Camden County emergency workers can now identify one that requires quick treatment to avoid long-term damage.


Rescue workers call the really bad one a STEMI.

The acronym comes from ST-Segment Elevation Myocardial Infarction. That is the name of a heart attack that results from a sudden blockage in one of three coronary arteries that supply blood to the heart.

STEMIs are of great concern to rescue workers and doctors, not only because they can be fatal but because, if left untreated for more than 90 minutes, they can cause lasting damage to the heart muscle. Victims who do not receive prompt treatment almost always suffer lasting cardiac damage and are rarely able to return to work or inactive lifestyle.

Technology now in place on Camden County Fire Rescue ambulances all but guarantees victims suffering from STEMIs will get the treatment they need within that important 90-minute window.

“Out of all the programs we do this has been the most successful,” said Assistant Rescue Chief Charles Lowther.

The program is a public-private partnership between the county and UF Health of Jacksonville. Through the partnership Camden County purchased five transmitters that send readings from the EKG machines on the ambulances to UF Health. Although not currently required to do so by the state, Camden County carries advanced, 12-lead EKG machines on all five of the “frontline” ambulances. Those machines give rescue workers better readings and help diagnose different types of heart attacks.

The benefit of the partnership comes from the transmitters. The program began in May of 2012.

“Prior to that we couldn’t transmit 12-lead EKGs,” said Lowther. “We could look at them and interpret them but we didn’t have the luxury of a board-certified physician on the other end saying, ‘Yeah I agree with y’all.’”

Now that rescue workers have that luxury, they are able to quickly get confirmation that a patient is suffering from a STEMI, and the victim can be transported directly to UF Health. According to Lowther the county transports two to three STEMI patients per month to the Jacksonville hospital.

Southeast Georgia Health System in Camden County is not able to treat STEMI patients. In the past patients that went to the local hospital could only be diagnosed there but they still had be sent to Jacksonville for treatment.

“That could often take three or four hours,” Lowther said. “By that time the damage to the heart muscle had already been done.”

Now, rescue workers can hook a patient up to the EKG machine within minutes of arriving at the scene. It takes about 3 minutes to get a reading and only nine seconds to transmit the information to the hospital. According to Lowther ambulances can get patients to Jacksonville in as little as 35 minutes.

“We really have extended the lab into the field,” said Interim Fire Chief Mark Crews.

Since the program began every STEMI sufferer that the members of Lowther’s team have picked up have made it to Jacksonville within the 90-minute window. Except one. That patient survived but did suffer lasting cardiac damage. The patient acknowledged she endured five hours of chest pains before calling an ambulance, Lowther said.

The transmitters work through cellular signals and are about the the size of a deck of cards.. They cost the county $35 per month to operatem, County Administator Steve Howard said. The total cost of the transmitters — about $2,400 — was reimbursed to the county by UF Health, through a grant, as part of the partnership.

“It really is neat technology,” Howard said.

The efforts of Crews, Lowther and Howard will be recognized April 11 in Savannah. Representatives from the county and UF Health will receive the Public-Private Partnership of the Year award at the centennial conference of The Association County Commissioners of Georgia.

“This is huge in the medical community, and it is not part of what we are required to do,” said Crews, who added that it is one of many reasons the county has award-winning emergency service.

Crews and Lowther are not content to stop with that accomplishment. They are currently testing new technology to use iPads to help diagnose stroke victims. The service would allow doctors and rescue workers to communicate with video and audio. They expect that program to be put into service in about six months.