William Fryer hadn’t felt particularly well for several days, but he couldn’t put his finger on why. So, when his vague symptoms finally lifted, he took the opportunity to get some much-needed exercise.
His brisk walk along a slightly uphill path began normally. But as he approached a turn behind some trees, the way he felt changed.
“I’d been walking for about three-quarters of a mile, and I noticed my legs started to feel a bit like rubber,” says the 83-year-old Army veteran. “After I turned around to walk home, I made it probably 30 yards. Then, I went down. I felt myself go out—probably for two or three seconds—because I didn’t realize when I’d hit the ground.”
In those few moments, his smartwatch detected his fall and initiated an SOS call to emergency medical services (EMS) and notified his family. It was a digital distress signal that started a journey that concluded with doctors at The Christ Hospital using leading-edge technology to save Fryer’s life.
An automatic call to 911
Twice before, Fryer’s smartwatch had started 911 calls for less serious falls, and he’d canceled them. But this time was different—he knew he needed medical attention. Fortunately, an off-duty police officer and her husband were biking nearby. They came over to help. The officer spoke with EMS personnel, and an ambulance soon arrived.
However, EMS responders couldn’t pinpoint why Fryer’s legs faltered. So, they offered him a choice.
“They went through all these tests in the ambulance and couldn’t find anything wrong. So, they told me they could either take me home or to the hospital,” Fryer says. “I wanted to know what happened, so they took me to the emergency room.”
An unexpected problem
Emergency room physicians were equally baffled until a chest CT revealed a large pulmonary embolism (PE), a blood clot in the lungs that blocks blood flow and forces the heart to pump harder, leading to cardiac damage. Typically, PE patients experience shortness of breath and chest pain—Fryer didn’t feel either.
But, based on the imaging results, the doctors called
Scott Tatum, MD, a Christ Hospital-affiliated vascular and interventional radiologist with vast experience using imaging guidance to remove PEs. Dr. Tatum reviewed Fryer’s images from his home office and went immediately to the hospital.
“His pulmonary embolism was so bad it was on the cusp of being categorized as massive or high-risk,” Dr. Tatum says. “Once I looked at his images, I realized enough was going on with him that I needed to see him. Based on the lab tests, the CT scan and his vital signs, he could do very poorly if we didn’t intervene.”
In fact, with such a substantial PE, Fryer’s risk of death within 30 days was between 10-20%.
The decision to intervene
When they met face-to-face, Dr. Tatum was surprised Fryer didn’t look particularly sick. He asked about Fryer’s heart rate and blood pressure to determine the strength of his heart. Most patients provide estimates, but technology came to Fryer’s rescue again. Thanks to his long-term use of a health tracking App on his cell phone that pairs with other at-home health devices, Fryer had an extensive history of his medical details at his fingertips.
“I was surprised when he pulled out his phone and showed me several months of recorded data,” Dr. Tatum says. “It was extremely helpful because, rather than guessing, I could see that even though his blood pressure wasn’t dangerously low, it was lower than normal, and his heart rate was higher. With this information, I knew we were making the best decision for him.”
Typically, PE patients receive blood thinners and clot-busting medications called thrombolytics to dissolve blood clots quickly. This approach increases the risk of serious bleeding, however. So instead, Fryer and Dr. Tatum opted for the latest PE treatment option—a suction device called a FlowTriever® that can remove clots within seconds.
The simple procedure presents only a 1% risk of major adverse events, including major bleeding. First, Dr. Tatum kept Fryer awake but comfortable with conscious sedation. Then, using imaging guidance, he slowly threaded a thin tube through a blood vessel from Fryer’s hip to the blood clot in his lung. Finally, he quickly applied the suction and eliminated 99% of the PE.
“I watched Dr. Tatum carry away pieces of blood clot that looked like strips of bacon,” Fryer says. “I didn’t realize that blood got that thick.”
Fryer’s improvement was substantial and nearly immediate, Dr. Tatum says. In fact, with his swift recovery, Dr. Tatum discharged him the next day.
The impact of wearable health technology
This incident was the first time Dr. Tatum encountered a patient who brought their own carefully recorded medical data to a conversation about treatment options. The smartwatch and cell phone brought Fryer to the hospital, but the extra details in his health tracking app contributed to his staying for treatment specifically tailored to his needs.
“I’d never thought about how powerful that information can be,” Dr. Tatum says. “But this is a clear example of that data being genuinely valuable to quick decision-making. If we don’t have background details on a patient, we sometimes struggle to treat them as individuals. Because Mr. Fryer had so much information to give us, it allowed me to treat him uniquely.”
As a patient, Fryer says providing that much personal information boosted his confidence in Dr. Tatum’s treatment decision. And, as one of IBM’s first computer programmers, he says the capabilities of these tools far surpass what was possible with even the most advanced technologies in his early career—and that impact is substantial.
“I’ve told a number of people that there’s more power in my watch than we had to put a man on the moon,” he says. “Your phone and watch have so much power that it’s unbelievable. It’s enough power to save a life—like mine.”
The Christ Hospital Health Network offers two convenient emergency room locations in Mt. Auburn and Liberty Township. You can even tell us you're on your way through your patient portal or MyChart!