Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Feature Article: 2,200 Americans die from Heart Disease each day


By Anita Manning, Special for USAToday

The term "heart disease" encompasses a range of abnormalities of the heart and blood vessels that can lead to stroke, heart attack, heart rhythm disturbances and damage to the valves that help keep blood pumping. The American Heart Association says more than 2,200 Americans die of heart and blood vessel diseases each day. Millions of people, it says, are living with the diseases and the debilitations they cause. People such as ...

A burning in Toshawa Andrews' chest, a frightening diagnosis

Six years ago, Toshawa Andrews of Los Angeles was at an ice skating rink executing some tricky maneuvers when she felt a burning in her chest. She thought it was anxiety.

"I said, 'Toshawa, this isn't the Olympic trials, calm down!' " she says. But the pain in her chest didn't go away, and it never occurred to her there was anything wrong with her heart. Why would it? She was 30 years old, a working mother who ate organic foods and spent all her free time on the ice.

She finally drove to the hospital. Tests were indeterminate. An angiogram showed her blood vessels were "squeaky clean," so doctors ruled out atherosclerosis, a narrowing of arteries resulting from cholesterol and other substances clogging arterial walls. Instead, doctors thought she had myocarditis, an infection, and prescribed rest. "Two weeks later, I was back on the ice," she says.

Four years later, she felt the same burning in her chest while skating, and that led to a series of tests and a diagnosis: coronary microvascular disease, a blockage that affects the smallest arteries of the heart.

She has had nine more heart attacks since then, including one last Thanksgiving.

Now, "part of my heart is damaged," she says. "I've had heart attacks where there was no damage, and others where it was scarred. Basically it's a slow death. All the little heart attacks are chipping away at my heart."

She takes a cocktail of medications and is highly attuned to her symptoms. She is 36, has three kids and skates five days a week. When she's tired, she knows not to push it. "I try to remain optimistic," she says. "Every day I wake up to see my kids, I'm grateful."

Feeling 'wheezy,' David Opferman is having a heart attack

David Opferman, 46, of Dacula, Ga., knew he had risks for heart disease: being overweight, having diabetes — and his father had died of a heart attack.

Opferman's heart attack happened two years ago, during a routine medical exam. "I mentioned to the nurse that I didn't feel like myself. I was wheezy." She sent him to a doctor in the building and he was given an electrocardiogram. "She said, 'You're having a heart attack,' " he says. Other than the wheezing, he had no symptoms.

Doctors put five stents in his arteries to open them, but so much damage had occurred to his heart that he was at risk for ventricular fibrillation, a serious heart rhythm abnormality. He left the hospital fitted with a wearable defibrillator, a vest with battery pack attached that would activate if needed to restart his heart. Two days later, he donned his vest and sat down to watch TV — and "my vest fired," he says. He was having sudden cardiac arrest — his heart stopped beating. It is fatal in 95% of cases, and Opferman says if it had happened moments earlier, while he was not wearing the vest, "I would not be talking to you today." He later had a permanent cardiodefibrillator surgically implanted.

The experience has changed his life. "I did this to myself," he says. "I'm the one that didn't follow the diet, I'm the one who didn't control my diabetes." He and his wife "don't have any kids. We're both workaholics." But "my life is a lot different today."

He exercises five days a week and has lost 50 pounds, and his diabetes is well-controlled. He knows he came close to dying, but "obviously, it wasn't my time to go."

With a gasp, George Sparrow Jr. has congestive heart failure

At age 35, George Sparrow Jr. of Lyons, N.Y., was in poor health. He had diabetes, hypertension and a blood clot. He smoked. He weighed 300 to 350 pounds.

One morning he started gasping for air. His girlfriend drove him to the hospital, then to a cardiologist, who told Sparrow he had congestive heart failure. He felt no pain, but he couldn't walk up a flight of stairs without having to stop to catch his breath.

He tried to go back to his job as a machinist but soon had to go on disability. Idle for the first time, Sparrow struggled. "I fell into a state of depression, because I ... was used to working 40 to 60 hours a week." He gained weight, getting up to 422. He worried that he might not be around for his kids, a daughter, 14, and son, 8, who has autism. The diets he tried "just did not work for me."

His doctors at the University of Rochester Medical Center suggested gastric bypass, a surgical procedure that reduces the size of the stomach. Sparrow read everything he could about it and watched TV shows that focus on weight problems, including Big Medicine, about people who have had bariatric surgery. In 2006, he decided to go for it.

Sparrow is now 46, weighs about 195 and works out at least two hours a day. He no longer has diabetes, but he still takes blood pressure medication. His heart function has improved steadily. "I feel like I was never a heavy person before," he says. He still likes those TV shows, and now the whole family joins him: "I make smoothies and we sit back and we watch The Biggest Loser together."

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