Man’s Heart Attack Shows Need For More EMS Coverage

Neil Torino poses with Paramedics Charles Livezey and Dennis Smith who helped save his life. (Photo courtesy Linda Torino)

  LAVALLETTE – Everyone likes a story with a happy ending, and this one is no exception. A barrier island man’s recent brush with death turned into triumph thanks to quick responders and top-tier medical care.

  However, Neil Torino’s tale of survival has left his wife Linda with a sobering realization. She submits that timing is everything. The outcome could have been tragic if a heart attack had struck her husband just a few hours earlier.

  During the summer, an ambulance is stationed on the barrier islands between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. Linda firmly believes Neil owes his life to the fact that his close call unfolded within the ambulance service’s active hours. This conviction has motivated Linda to champion the critical value of swift medical assistance and emphasize the necessity for round-the-clock emergency services.

  Linda recounted the discovery of her husband’s heart condition in 2016. Neil’s cardiologist initially perceived Neil’s physical condition as unremarkable and noted his positive track record with regular cardiac assessments.

  “I had heard that a cardiac CT scan was the most comprehensive test for the heart and asked the doctor to order one,” shared Linda. “He told me he didn’t think it was indicated and wasn’t sure the insurance company would pay for it. I insisted.”

Linda and Neil Torino couldn’t be more grateful for the emergency services they received. (Photo courtesy Linda Torino)

  As it turned out, Linda’s persistence paid off. The CT scan revealed some troublesome areas, and Neil was promptly set up for catheterization and potential placement of a couple of stents. It turns out the problem was worse than expected. Neil had three blockages and needed open heart surgery.

  Since the surgery seven years ago, Neil has been under the regular care of his cardiologist in north Jersey. More recently, Neil’s blood pressure started to rise, and the couple figured it was due to stress at work. Neil also noticed that he became increasingly fatigued and couldn’t finish his workout routines.

  Again, the regular cardiac assessments came back without any issues. In retrospect, Linda can’t help but wonder if she should have pressed for another cardiac CT scan.

  Neil’s retirement from his job in April left him with less stress. With the summer months coming, the couple looked forward to spending time at their shore house in Lavallette. On June 10  at 9 a.m., Linda was upstairs when she heard a strange noise.

  “My husband was outside digging a tree,” Linda said. “Apparently, the exertion of digging out a tree is very similar to shoveling snow. People have heart attacks and die.”

  According to Linda, Neil felt weak and ready to pass out. He somehow made it into the house and slid himself to the floor. Linda heard a strange sound and came down to find Neil had somehow made it up onto a chair. One look at her husband, and she knew he was in trouble.

  Neil told his wife that he couldn’t catch his breath. A call to 911 resulted in an ambulance marked Toms River emergency services arriving within minutes. The dispatcher stayed on the line until she was sure help was there.

  Fortunately, the couple’s daughter was staying at a house right up the street and was able to drive her mother to follow the ambulance to Community Medical Center back on the mainland. The reality of the crisis reached a pinnacle when the emergency vehicle came to a halt at the Acme in Ortley Beach.

  “As we were rounding the bend on Route 35 to go onto Route 37, we saw them,” said Linda. “The ambulance was there, the Toms River paramedic vehicle and three cop cars.”

  Linda immediately knew the situation had become even more dire. As she and her daughter approached the scene, they were directed to head to the hospital. Linda subsequently learned that Neil had coded four times in the ambulance and had been successfully revived by the first responders.

  En route to the hospital, Linda recalled the last time she’d been inside Community Medical Center. Two decades had passed since Linda visited a patient, and Linda remembered she was not overly impressed. The memories heightened her concerns about the care her husband would receive. However, Linda’s feelings changed almost immediately.

Neil Torino poses with Paramedics Charles Livezey and Dennis Smith who helped save his life. (Photo courtesy Linda Torino)

  “This was not the same hospital,” Linda shared. “Everything is brand new, and everyone was incredibly efficient.”

  During Neil’s open heart surgery, the couple had the advantage of speaking with their son, a medical resident at the University of Pennsylvania. That time around, they had the luxury of carefully choosing the right medical professional. However, in the current situation, they were faced with a crisis, and when Neil reached the hospital, time was of the essence, leaving no room for extended decision-making.

  Linda said the hospital’s top interventional cardiologist, Dr. Mohammed Haris Usman, came to speak with her in a small room. He said the plan was to take Neil for catheterization and possible placement of a couple of stents. Dr. Usman spoke with the couple’s doctor son, who advised Linda to sign the papers for the procedure.

  The wait seemed indefinite, but all turned out well in the end. A nurse who had been present in the catheterization lab during the procedure personally guided the family to the ICU waiting room. Linda recounted that the nurse became emotional herself while sharing how resilient Neil had been and highlighting the spirit of teamwork that united them all.

  “I cannot sing the praises higher of Toms River Community Hospital,” said Linda. “I read online that the state of the art cath lab was just installed 18-20 months ago with a $2.5 million endowment. That’s what Usman had to work with, and he was also trained at the University of Pennsylvania.”

  The frequency with which the doctor and the staff checked on her husband also left Linda impressed. Neil quickly earned the nickname “miracle man” and, fortunately, emerged without any damage to his vital organs.

  However, Neil’s hospitalization came with another revelation. He was afflicted with an inherited condition known as familial hyperlipidemia, which had gone undetected until then. Left untreated, this condition can heighten the risk of heart attacks as blood encounters difficulties moving through blood vessels. Thankfully, Neil is now under medication to address this situation.

  Linda and Neil are both extremely grateful for the care they received starting with the initial call to 911 and to each and every professional that helped save Neil’s life. However, Linda still wonders what would have happened if the ambulance didn’t respond as quickly as it did. She plans to submit a petition to Toms River authorities asking for round-the-clock coverage on the barrier islands.

EMT Drew Cavo came to visit Neil at his Lavallette home on July 4. (Photo courtesy Linda Torino)

Ambulance Coverage

  Like most Ocean County towns, volunteers ride the ambulances within their communities. Volunteerism was already experiencing a decline well before COVID struck.

  The problem hits home for Toms River Councilman Kevin Geoghegan. He first became a volunteer with Silverton EMS when he was just 16 years old and a paramedic at age 18. Geoghegan is a retired Toms River police sergeant who created the township’s EMS program in 2002.

  More than two decades later, Geoghegan said there are fewer paramedic units and paramedics in Ocean County. Meanwhile, the population has dramatically increased.

  “The biggest issue is EMS is not a required service in the State of New Jersey,” shared Geoghegan. “It’s not covered by your tax dollars. Towns must provide police protection or contract with the state police or another town, but they’re not required to provide fire or sanitation either.”

  Geoghegan said that in the past, two separate first aid squads existed in the beach area. However, they closed due to a lack of membership and public support from the community. Again, not enough people were either interested in or able to volunteer.

  “There is absolutely EMS service available to the barrier islands, just like there’s fire service 24/7,” emphasized Geoghegan.

  The problem may well be a delay, something Geoghegan suggested happens in every community. For example, ambulance workers can be tied up on a lift assist when a call comes in of a more critical nature.

  The gravity of the situation has reached a point where many towns have entertained the idea of employing paid EMS workers. Nonetheless, even paid ambulance services are encountering challenges in recruiting personnel. Conversations among Ocean County officials about establishing a regional EMS team have been ongoing for a while now.

  “We are looking at the numbers,” Deputy Director of the Commissioners Gary Quinn acknowledged. “We are looking at three units, one over in the barrier islands, one in the southern end of the county, and one in the central part. At least, we’d be giving some relief for some of these towns that just can’t service these calls when they come in.”

  Quinn said that the emphasis includes finding the right people, providing comprehensive training, and ensuring their compensation is sufficient to prevent workers from seeking higher-paying alternatives elsewhere.

  “At the end of the day, if we can prevent the loss of one human life,” continued Quinn. “I don’t care what the cost is – it’s something we need to do.”