My uncle, Vinay Mehta, lies quietly on a gurney in the hospital’s pre-post catherization room. His wife of 40 years is by his side. The TV across the room is flickering, and the EKG monitor behind him beats a regular rhythm. His cardiologist, who just performed the heart catherization, is a family friend and is in the room with us.

My uncle’s eyes are small and set in. His complexion has grown darker with age. His brow is wrinkled, and his usual smile is missing. He is usually quiet and soft-spoken, but now asks a few questions. For the most part, he lets my aunt, who works as an event planner, lead the conversation.

Two weeks ago, when my uncle became short of breath within five minutes of his 30-minute exercise routine at Germantown Athletic Club, he knew something was wrong with his heart.

A stress test re-created the symptoms of shortness of breath. The EKG tracings revealed his otherwise regular heart going into life-threatening rhythm, ventricular tachycardia, with minimal exertion. The nuclear scan pointed to the area of the heart which was starved for blood and oxygen.

My uncle, like one in three Americans, has heart disease. And his journey to better heart health is a common experience for millions of Americans. Heart disease is not a one-time event, like the flu or a hip fracture; rather it is a chronic illness which occurs in spurts over decades. My uncle knows that well.

In 2000, at age 54, he had chest pain which led to an emergency heart cath and bypass surgery — cracking open the sternum, stopping the heart and rerouting the straw-size arteries that lie on the heart and supply blood to the heart muscles.

A complete block of the heart vessel leads to a heart attack just as a block of the brain vessels leads to a stroke (also called brain attack). I vividly remember that day in 2000 standing in the ICU room with the family, who were in shock. We prayed before he was whisked off for surgery.

Over the past 50 years, we have made astronomical progress in the treatment of heart disease. Then, one in three patients with a heart attack died immediately; today the death rate has been reduced to one in 20. Then, 50 years ago, the first heart bypass was performed, and now nearly a half-million are done each year.

In fact, over the past decade there has been a decline in the number of bypasses, in large part due to cardiac stenting. This is when a mesh-like sleeve is inserted inside the obstructed heart vessel to keep it open. My uncle had two stents placed since his bypass surgery.

In addition to surgical innovations, much progress has been achieved in reducing the risk of heart disease through medicines. In the 1980s, researchers found that taking an aspirin during a heart attack reduced the risk of death by nearly 25 percent. And beta blocker, a heart- calming drug, reduced the death rate by another 25 percent over a year after a heart attack.

While surgery and medicines can reduce the risk, equal benefit is gained by modifying lifestyle factors. Not smoking reduces the risk of heart disease by half, and walking for 30 minutes reduces the risk of heart disease by 10 percent.

What amazes me is the rapid progress that has improved the quality and quantity of life for patients. A half-century ago, patients like my uncle would have had no hope of surviving the first heart attack, yet today with surgical, medical and lifestyles changes, heart disease is being managed successfully.

While my uncle, a retired engineer from Hunter Fan who spends his time gardening and videographing weddings and graduation parties, has been diligent with his aspirin, his beta blocker, his exercise, and his low-fat vegetarian diet, he cannot overcome his genetic risk factor for heart disease. Both his father and brother died of a heart attack.

In the pre-post cath room, standing a few feet in front of the white board in his sea-blue scrubs, the cardiologist drew an anatomical heart, which looked like a lopsided laboratory flask with straw-size tubes, coronary vessels, lying on top. “I showed the films to the surgeon” the cardiologist told us. “It is not an emergency, but you will likely need another surgery, even a valve replacement.”

The room grows quiet. My uncle is not happy with the news. He wants to go home. He does, with an appointment to see the cardiothoracic surgeon.

First in a series

This is the first of three columns that focus on one man’s journey through heart surgery and recovery.

Source : Commercial Appeal