One man’s cautionary tale about hidden heart disease


When David McCormick’s cough wouldn’t go away after several weeks, he decided to make an appointment with his pulmonologist to see what was going on. She advised getting a CT scan which revealed severe calcifications of the coronary arteries.

“I couldn’t believe what she was telling me,” McCormick shared. “All I had was a simple cough. I didn’t have any chest pains or shortness of breath – nothing that would indicate there was something wrong with my heart. So, I made an appointment with a cardiologist, and he looked over the X-rays and CT scan, took some other X-rays of the chest cavity and advised me to take a stress test. I did, and I failed.

“From there I went to the cath lab because they thought the blockage was such that possibly stents could be put in. Unfortunately, there was too much severe blockage to go that route. That was very disheartening and frightening to say the least.”

McCormick learned that he had an 85 percent blockage of the coronary artery, a condition often called the widow-maker because of the high percentage of fatalities that result from such blockage. Two other arteries were blocked about 75 percent and 65 percent.

“I realized I was kind of flirting with a time bomb,” he said. “My cardiologist, Dr. Wudel, advised that we schedule a triple bypass as soon as possible. Everything happened so fast – it was only seven or eight weeks since I went to my pulmonologist with a nagging cough.

And it was right before the holidays. Certainly not the most convenient time but if I wanted to live a long life, I knew it was what I had to do.”

“David came to me after the investigation and work of his doctors found him to have significant blockage of all three major blood vessels of his heart,” said Dr. James Wudel, cardiac surgeon and site director for the Heart, Vascular and Thoracic Institute at Cleveland Clinic Indian River Hospital. “When those blockages are in certain locations and there are other risk factors involved with the patient, then coronary artery bypass is the best option.”

The fact that he had no apparent symptoms is not that unusual considering that McCormick was a diabetic and many patients with a history of diabetes don’t have any chest pain.

“The two things that made coronary bypass the indicated method of therapy were the location and extent of the blockages as well as his diabetes,” Dr. Wudel explained. “Twenty years ago, only about 15 percent of people that had heart surgery had diabetes. Now it’s close to 60 percent of people that have bypass surgery have diabetes.

“During the bypass procedure we use the patient’s own blood vessels, whether that be from the chest or from the upper part of the leg, to go around the narrowings, much like a detour around a bad road,” Dr. Wudel said. “We bypass not only the blockages that are 80-to-90 percent, but also include others that are 20-to-30 percent narrow that may be a problem four or five years down the line. A large piece of the coronary bypass procedure is that it protects someone long-term against heart attacks because it bypasses those other areas on the heart.”

The procedure took several hours, and McCormick was hospitalized for four days. He had his operation the first part of December and six weeks later he’s out swinging his clubs on the golf course.

“The recovery from bypass surgery has been quite simplified over the past many years so that people can get back to doing what they do sooner,” Dr. Wudel continued. “The anesthetic techniques are better. Our understanding of how we put the sternum back together and how we perform the operation is better and more expedient. We also have a better understanding of what people can do safely during their recovery.”

McCormick recovered at home after the surgery with the help of home health professionals and his wife, who just happens to be a nurse. He started cardiac rehab, walking on a treadmill and lifting weights, and now walks outside at least a mile a day.

While McCormick’s condition was found during a screening after he saw his pulmonologist for a cough, and he credits that screening and the expert care of his doctors to saving his life.

Dr. Wudel recommended that people see their local caregiver or physician to see if they qualify for screening given their medical history, age and family history.

“About 80 percent of all our health problems are environmentally related,” Dr. Wudel continued. “By that I mean they are diet related, lack of exercise related, lack of sleep related, and stress related. Those are things we can control with the No. 1 thing being what we eat. Fruits and vegetables should be at the forefront of our daily intake and moving toward more plant-based proteins is important.

“We don’t have to all be vegetarians or vegans, but relying on vegetables, plant-based proteins, fresh fish and those kinds of things should be our focus. It also helps to get outside and walk in the sunlight. Sun is great not just physically but mentally as well.

Managing your mental health, managing stress, having friends and social connections are very important as well.”

While coronary artery disease is hereditary, Dr. Wudel is quick to point out that those genes do not determine your destiny. Taking care of yourself is your best preventative.

“If there is one thing I want readers to take home from my story, it’s to listen to your body and follow up with a physician if something doesn’t feel right,” McCormick said. “It was by happenstance that I found out about my heart blockage. If I hadn’t gone to my pulmonologist for a persistent cough I never would have known, and I very well could have died. I am forever grateful for the care of all the physicians involved because I can now look forward to a longer, healthier life.”

Dr. James Wudel received his medical degree from Emory University Medical School and completed his general surgery residency at Vanderbilt University Hospitals. He then completed his cardiothoracic surgery residency at the University of California and as a chief resident at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation. His office is in the Rosner Family Health and Wellness Center at 3450 11th Court, Vero Beach. You can call 877-463-2010 to schedule an appointment.

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