A commercial lately making the rounds on TV has a group of people sitting around a conference table when one of them is handed a note. Your heart attack will happen tomorrow, it reads.
The announcer goes on to say that most heart attacks don’t come with such an explicit warning. Indeed, studies have shown that for many people, the first symptom of heart disease is keeling over with a heart attack.
And many people who have heart disease symptoms don’t recognize them as such, thinking that severe chest pain is the only sign they need to take seriously.
As 2014’s American Heart Month draws to a close, that’s a message worth taking to, well, heart.
The three area residents profiled in this story were able to stave off a serious or potentially fatal heart problem, in part because they got a little-known test that can show if calcium deposits are building up in coronary arteries – an indication of pending blockages that could cause a heart attack.
That’s the beauty of this test – you can detect the disease in asymptomatic patients, says Dr. Motaz Alshaher, a cardiologist who practices at Lutheran Hospital. With coronary artery disease there’s a very long asymptomatic phase where we can intervene and treat it.
The test takes several minutes, is non-invasive and costs about $50. It doesn’t require a referral from a doctor. While it’s not for everyone, some medical experts would like more people to use it as a screening – especially those with an elevated chance of heart disease because of family history, diabetes, high cholesterol or high blood pressure or other risk factors, including being overweight or obese, inactive, a present or former smoker or older than 40.
Recently, elevated calcium readings on the test were added by the American Heart Association as a risk factor calling for more aggressive treatment, Alshaher says.
Since April 2012, Lutheran has been using a new 320-slice Aquilion ONE CT system to do the test. The system can show the entire heart in a matter of seconds, although older CT instruments also can perform the test, says Lizette Downey, a hospital spokeswoman.
Testing is available at Lutheran’s radiology department and affiliated campuses, where it’s called CardioRisk, and through Parkview Health at the North, Randallia and Carnegie Boulevard locations, where it’s known as a HeartSmart CT scan.
We’ve had whole families come in together, says Lois Wilson, manager of Parkview’s diagnostic imaging department. They start out with a family history, and then one family member has a scan and finds out they have a problem and reaches out to other family members. It’s a lot of fun for us because it gets to be kind of a family reunion. And sometimes husbands and wives or parents and children give the test to each other as a gift.
Monica Hair, Fort Wayne, open heart surgery
Monica Hair, 54, has had diabetes for about 30 years. She’s always been active and watched her diet, but the condition put her at elevated risk for heart disease.
A bus driver for Southwest Allen County Schools, Hair says she noticed when she made daily safety checks of her bus – a task that required her to walk around the vehicle and bend over – she would feel a burning at her breastbone. It would only let up if she massaged her chest.
I thought (it was) heartburn. I just didn’t know, she says. But it was getting to the point that it was every day.
At the urging of her sister, X-ray technician Claire Stull, she went to a doctor, who sent her for a test.
It found she had five blocked arteries. They took me in for (cardiac bypass) surgery right away, she says – a procedure that used blood vessels from elsewhere in her body to reroute blood flow around the blockages.
That was in 2010. Hair spent a day in intensive care after the surgery and three days in the hospital, after which she spent three months in cardiac rehab so she could go back to her job.
A lot of pain followed the surgery, she says, and while she can still feel the scar in her chest, the divorced mother of three says she’s back to power-walking every day.
Besides her diabetes medicine, she takes blood-pressure and cholesterol medicine and low-dose aspirin as a heart-attack preventative.
Hair says her close call taught her you can still have calcifications in your arteries even if your cholesterol and blood pressure readings are normal. She’s glad she got tested.
You just lie there, she says. It’s not like you feel anything. It’s 20 minutes, if that.
After surgery, Hair says, I felt like a whole new person. Well, in a way, I was a whole new person.
Doug Hillman, Ossian, stent placement
For many years, Doug Hillman was a licensed airplane pilot and truck driver who passed required annual physicals with flying colors. His only health concern was high blood pressure, for which he took medication.
But last December, the 64-year-old had a little money left over in a medical flexible spending account, and at the urging of his wife, Shirley, who works in Lutheran Hospital’s radiology department, he decided to repeat a CardioRisk test he had taken as a guinea pig about six years earlier.
His score more than doubled, from a borderline risk of heart attack to very high risk. Worse, further testing showed a large blockage in the left anterior descending artery.
The widow-maker. That’s what they call it, he says.
The problem was corrected in January with surgery to place a stent, a device made of flexible mesh that opens outward like a tiny umbrella to unblock the artery and prop it open. The procedure didn’t require opening up his chest – the stent was inserted using a catheter through a blood vessel in his leg.
The device carries a time-release blood-thinner coating to dissolve any future clots.
Hillman says he spent only one night in the hospital. He just had a good checkup with his doctor, has quit smoking and vows to continue concentrating on losing weight to lower his risks.
Looking back, Hillman says he did have gradual worsening of shortness of breath. But he says he dismissed it as age-related, even when getting up and down the basement stairs was getting to be a big problem.
The incident was just a bump in the road, says Hillman, who now works in real estate.
Once you get the blood flow started up again, you feel great, he says. The whole thing, it was so unobtrusive. I found out, and I took care of it, and I went on with my life.
Molly Jordan, Fort Wayne, high blood pressure
Molly Jordan, 41, did have a symptom of cardiovascular disease – 13 years ago when she was 28.
She didn’t fit the typical profile of being middle-aged and male or menopausal and female. But when she fainted after hitting a few tennis balls with friends, she was concerned enough to get herself checked.
Her blood pressure was 200 over 110, well above normal readings of around 120 over 80. And that was a week later, she says.
She had had no previous symptoms. High blood pressure has a reputation as being a silent killer.
Having the diagnosis early proved important for Jordan. Had she not known, she might have had complications in her two later pregnancies. As it was, she was classified as high risk from the start and was able to take preventive measures.
Jordan now uses the test to make sure she’s not developing blockages – her last test was clean, no calcifications, she says. She has been working on persuading siblings to get tested, because both her father and mother had high blood pressure at early ages.
Her father, Robert Bogenschutz of Fort Wayne, died from heart-related disease when she was 13.
For a lot of people it’s peace of mind, Jordan says of the test. Having hypertension, is not just checking blood pressure, she adds. I want to be a partner and be involved in keeping track of my status.