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From Open-Heart Surgery to Climbing Mount Sinai: Betty’s Story

  • Date Submitted: Jul 8, 2024
  • Category: Heart & Vascular

“ Dr. Deucher supported me when I was my own advocate.”

With a strong family history of heart disease, Betty, 62, of Middleburg Heights, has always made her health a priority. She eats well, exercises, and maintains a healthy weight. She had also never experienced symptoms of heart disease. So when she saw her Southwest General cardiologist, Dr. Michael Deucher in the fall of 2023, Betty had no reason to believe it would be anything other than a routine appointment.

Betty’s visit went well. She’d been seeing Dr. Deucher annually for nearly 20 years after experiencing a minor heart episode. Health-wise, Betty was in a good place and a physical exam provided no cause to worry. But as she was about to say goodbye to Dr. Deucher, Betty felt an instinct to ask a few additional questions.

“Something told me to sit back down and ask him how things were flowing around my heart,” Betty recalls, adding that her family history of heart disease was on her mind.

When Zero is Hero

Coronary artery disease is a common heart condition, caused by a buildup of plaque in the heart’s arteries. Plaque collects slowly over time, long before there are any symptoms of disease.

Dr. Deucher took Betty’s concerns seriously, and he suggested a test called the coronary artery calcium score, a CT scan that checks for calcium in the arteries that supply the heart. CT

(computerized tomography) scans use a series of x-rays that provide a detailed 360-degree view of the body’s structures — including the heart.

What does calcium have to do with artery disease? While coronary plaque itself is not detectable on a CT scan, calcium, a mineral often present in the plaque (along with fats and other substances) is detectable. The test can, therefore, help diagnose early coronary artery disease, identify patients at risk, and help guide preventive measures such as lifestyle changes or medications.

The coronary artery calcium score is one of several tools used to test for and diagnose coronary artery disease. When it comes to the numbers, the ideal calcium score is zero. Anything higher than that requires additional testing to determine what, if any, level of intervention is needed.

A Surprise Finding

Recalling her conversation with Dr. Deucher about the coronary calcium scan, Betty said they were both fairly confident it would return a very low score. To everyone’s surprise, the number came back much higher than Betty and her doctor anticipated: in the 500s.

To further assess Betty’s risk, Dr. Deucher ordered a treadmill stress test. A stress test evaluates how the heart functions under physical exertion by monitoring heart rate, blood pressure, and electrical activity while the patient walks or runs on a treadmill. Betty didn’t pass the stress test, so she then needed a heart catheterization. In this procedure, a thin, flexible tube is inserted into a blood vessel and guided to the heart to diagnose and assess the severity of cardiovascular conditions by taking images and measuring pressures inside the heart and its arteries.

After Betty’s catheterization, she learned that the primary artery to her heart was 95% blocked. She needed open heart surgery, which took place the very next day.

Rehab For a Dream Vacation

Betty’s open heart surgery was followed by extensive cardiac rehabilitation—32 sessions—at Southwest General. The cardiac rehab staff were determined to help Betty reach her goal to hike through Egypt, a goal Betty achieved in February 2024 on a bucket list trip with her husband. She was even able to hike up Mount Sinai – three hours uphill and three hours back down. “The whole team in rehab was phenomenal,” Betty says.

Betty is also grateful to her cardiologist, who listened to and acted on Betty’s instincts. “Dr. Deucher supported me when I was my own advocate,” she recalls, “He easily could have said ‘You're okay; you have no symptoms; I'll see you back in a year.” Instead, she says he stood behind her desire to dig deeper.

Should You Ask About Your Calcium Score?

Dr. Deucher is an advocate for the calcium score test. “Coronary artery disease, heart disease is the number one killer of men and women in the country as well as the world, so it is a very important test that we have in our armamentarium,” he says. “It's the best non-invasive test to assess people [thought] to have blockages in their arteries.”

Dr. Deucher explains that other, more extensive and expensive tests are not always appropriate or covered by insurance for patients with only intermediate risk. He describes the typical calcium score patient as someone with a family history of heart disease, a smoker, or someone with high blood pressure, diabetes, or other conditions that put them at risk. The test results give him an idea of whether the patient has any plaque—and if so, how much—at that moment in time. Most importantly, the information is actionable. It can indicate the need for further testing, as in Betty’s case, or other adjustments like lifestyle modification or medications.

Betty encourages other at-risk patients to ask their own doctors about the test. “Please don't hesitate. It saved my life,” Betty says. She would also encourage others to turn to Southwest General for their cardiac care. “Everybody is so helpful,” she says, “from the nurses and the staff who saw me through my recovery after the open heart surgery … everybody was right there asking me “What do you need? What can we do for you? How can we help you?’ It was a wonderful experience.”

About the Calcium Score Test at Southwest General

Southwest General offers the coronary artery calcium score test at no cost for patients at our main campus. Patients do need an order for the test from their provider, but it can be from a primary care provider and not necessarily from a cardiologist. The test takes just a few minutes; there are no injections or fasting requirements, and patients can return to normal activities immediately after testing is completed. Learn more about the test here.