It's Never Too Early To Know Your Risk For Heart Disease: Elmer Gonzalez

July 19, 2016

A Heart Attack Can Happen When You Least Expect It

"I'm a statistic." Those were the words of 39-year-old Elmer Gonzalez, a local Meriden resident who suffered a heart attack early last year. Aside from being a diabetic with a family history of heart disease, Elmer was a young, active male of normal weight, who was not the typical heart attack patient.

"The family history was there, but I never thought it would happen to me. I knew what it was like for my parents, so I stayed fit and did what I could to avoid it," said Elmer.

Unfortunately, Elmer could not avoid the disease that had affected his family for years. After suffering from weeks of what he described as an acid reflux feeling in his chest, he decided to visit his doctor. Several tests revealed that Elmer had severe blockages in three arteries and scar tissue in his lower heart chamber, evidence that a minor heart attack had occurred without him even knowing it. Doctors recommended he undergo an intense five-vessel bypass surgery, the only option to treat his condition.

Our Heart Center Can Get You Back on Track

While his surgery was successful, Elmer still had a long road to recovery. That's where the expertise of our Heart Center's cardiac rehabilitation program comes in. For three days per week for 12 weeks, Elmer learned how to manage his heart disease. He and a specially trained nurse started with goal setting, which for Elmer, consisted of continuing education, modifying his diet, and increasing his physical activity.

His program was comprehensive and completely personalized to reflect his needs. Of major concern was his diabetes, which until he came into contact with cardiac rehabilitation, he never monitored correctly. "I took some diabetes classes here and learned to control what I eat, which plays a big factor in heart disease," explained Elmer.

MidState's Diabetes Center is part of the Heart Center and specialized advanced practiced registered nurses develop specific education plans to help patients make therapeutic lifestyle changes for their ongoing health and wellness.

Elmer continued, "I also spent one hour a day on the cardio equipment doing the treadmill and bike, lifting light weights, and stretching. In the last three to four months, I've lost 25 pounds."

During Elmer's workouts, cardiac nurses monitored his heartbeat, blood pressure and other vital signs. Additionally, he was taught how to monitor himself to achieve long-term success.

Elmer graduated from the Heart Center's program in late October, and while he always did routine walking, he now works out five days per week on his equipment at home.

He attributes MidState's cardiac rehabilitation program as a major player in his speedy recovery: "I worked with a phenomenal team of nurses who were instrumental in my care. I couldn't ask for a better group of individuals. When I was going through this, everything was unknown. I thought, one day you're vibrant and alive, and in a matter of seconds, hours, or days, that could change. The nurses were extremely supportive during my difficult time. I rate them an A+."

The Heart of the Matter is Prevention

According to MidState cardiologist and medical director of the Acute Coronary Syndrome program, George Spivack, MD, there are a number of factors that can increase your risk of heart disease, including hypertension, smoking, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and as in Elmer's case, a family history of heart attack and diabetes.

In fact, as Dr. Spivack puts it, "Diabetes is increasingly becoming the single most important risk factor for heart disease in this society. When we look at the cause of death in many diabetes patients, it usually stems from heart disease."

Yet the general population of people, and even those who have diabetes, doesn't fully understand the relationship between the condition and heart disease, and how imperative it is to keep diabetes under control. In a recent study, Dr. Spivack said, people with controlled diabetes received tests to assess their risk, and one-fourth of them were completely unaware they had significant heart disease.

These patients and others at general risk need to take greater efforts to prevent the development of coronary artery disease. Director of MidState's Cardiac Service Line and cardiologist, William Farrell, MD, says, "It all boils down to diet and exercise. Eating non-processed foods that are high in fiber and low in fat makes a difference." And regular exercise can also offset your risk. What does the term "regular exercise" mean? It means dedicating a specific time of day for working out, above and beyond physical activity that occurs during the course of your normal day.

"Your physical activity doesn't have to be very aggressive for the purpose of preventing heart disease. It's dependent on age. If you are young, then moderate exercise should be intense, but if you're older, moderate may simply mean walking," stressed Dr. Spivack.

Many heart disease risk factors are silent, such as high blood pressure and cholesterol, so if you are concerned with these issues, the important thing to do is see your doctor for a physical.

Specific tests, such as stress tests, can assess the condition of your heart and arteries. Dr. Farrell notes, "Stress tests are a good way to pick up heart artery disease if it's severe, but the vast majority of heart attacks occur when arteries are only 20% blocked. To pick up artery blockage early, there are non-invasive techniques that allow us to look around the bend of the road and figure out where you'll be in 10 years." One of these techniques is a CT scan that measures the calcium content of the arteries, which ultimately has a correlation with the degree of heart disease. A very specific ultrasound can also check the carotid arteries in your neck.

The American Heart Association provides a comprehensive online risk assessment that serves as a stepping-stone in prevention efforts. By age 40, everyone should know their general risk and assess it every five years. To take the assessment, visit www.americanheart.org/riskassessment.

MidState Medical Center