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FAIRFIELD -- NorthBay Medical Center has been designated by Solano County as the preferred hospital for heart attack patients, a designation that comes just two months after the 132-bed hospital became the county's first level III trauma center.

The hospital recently received final approval from the county Emergency Medical Services Agency, and ambulance and first responders are now directed to transport heart attack patients to the Fairfield hospital for cardiac care, according to NorthBay Healthcare. The agreement between the two sides spells out various terms for quality assurance, data reporting and other matters.

The heart attack designation makes the hospital a STEMI Receiving Center. STEMI, or ST segment elevation myocardial infarction, is a severe cardiac event that requires immediate medical attention. Previously, as was the case with trauma patients, residents were typically sent out of county for emergency care, usually to hospitals in Sacramento or Walnut Creek.

"NorthBay Healthcare has taken the lead in bringing another advanced, life-saving medical service to our citizens," said Deborah Sugiyama, president of the NorthBay Healthcare Group, which oversees the Fairfield hospital and VacaValley Hospital in Vacaville. "No longer will patients suffering a major heart attack have to go to hospitals outside the county."

In addition to the heart attack designation, the Fairfield hospital learned that it experienced twice the amount of trauma cases it initially anticipated before becoming a level III center on Sept. 30, indicating a larger need for emergency care than perhaps expected. Hospital officials said original trauma estimates were based on serving the Fairfield and Vacaville areas. But shortly after Kaiser Permanente announced -- and later obtained -- designation to be a level III trauma center at its Vacaville Medical Center, NorthBay Healthcare opted to draw trauma cases from the Fairfield and Vallejo area, or about 75 percent of the county's population.

The emergency room has seen about two trauma cases per day, twice the amount expected, at the Fairfield hospital, according to Gary Passama, president and chief executive officer of NorthBay Healthcare. The top causes for trauma were traffic collisions or accidents and falls.

"As is the case with trauma patients, time is critical in treating those exhibiting the symptoms of a major heart attack," said Kathy Richerson, vice president and chief nursing officer for NorthBay. "Being close to home, we can provide treatment sooner and thereby save lives."

The new STEMI center, officials said, was a natural expansion of the NorthBay Heart & Vascular Center, which opened in 2009.  Hundreds of hours of training and new staff were added to achieve the new designation for heart attack patients.

During a STEMI, one or more of the arteries that nourish the heart muscle is completely blocked by a blood clot, and as a result, the heart muscle being supplied by the affected artery begins to die.  As a heart attack center, NorthBay said its  emergency department will be able to quickly deploy specially trained teams of nurses and cardiologists to clear the blocked artery before damage to the heart muscle is irreversible. A team of cardiac surgeons will be on call 24/7  to conduct emergency open-heart surgery if it is needed, NorthBay said.

“Through careful assessment of the application, coupled with the results of the on-site review, the survey team feels NorthBay Medical Center is committed to providing excellent STEMI care to the residents of Solano County,” wrote Ted Selby, Emergency Medical Services administrator for the county. “The care of patients suffering from STEMI involves strong teamwork and dedicated staff; NorthBay Medical Center has demonstrated both.”