My husband’s heart: A message everyone needs to hear

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(WNDU) - February is Heart Month, an important time for awareness about the leading cause of death in this country: heart disease.

A very scary event prompted Tom and Tricia Sloma to share Tom’s personal journey.

The Slomas met in college at the Ohio State University and married soon after Tricia graduated. They have two daughters and are very active in the community. Next month, they will celebrate 29 years of marriage.

Though they’ve shared their ups and downs, there’s one event that just about ended everything: a 100% block of the widow-maker.

Tom’s symptoms were so obscure and strange, they thought it was worth sharing with other stubborn spouses.

Physical fitness has always been a part of Tom’s life. Forty minutes on the elliptical is his favorite exercise. He did it daily, especially when he was training for a physically demanding rim-to-rim hike in the Grand Canyon. It was a feat that he and their daughter accomplished together in September of 2018.

“I was really fortunate nothing happened on that trip, very fortunate,” Tom said. “I’m just glad we got it checked out.”

Just a few months later, he didn't feel like working out anymore. Tom was exhausted. Tricia noticed and nagged him about it.

“[I] blamed it on the stress on the job, like everybody would, thinking that's the reason I felt tired at the end of the day,” Tom said.

But one very cold day in February, something very strange happened. Tom was at home at their farm. While working in the barn, he developed a bad case of indigestion.

“So, I went into the house, drank a glass of milk, and all of a sudden, I got shortness of breath, and that didn't feel right, and then my arm started hurting a little bit and I couldn't catch my breath,” Tom recalled. "… [I] just kind of toughed it out for five or 10 minutes, and then it started to subside. After that, I felt like I ran a marathon, but I didn't do anything. That was the first real wake-up call."

It was a wake-up call that finally convinced Tom to call his family doctor. She ordered a stress test, a way to see how hard your heart pumps while exercising on a treadmill. He got his heart rate up for several minutes and passed with flying colors.

After that, most stubborn men would say, "See? I’m fine!"

Thankfully, he didn’t. And neither did his cardiologist, Dr. Rickyn Patel of the South Bend Clinic.

“He’s very lucky. I mean, he could have easily ignored these symptoms,” Patel said. “He knew something was wrong, and based on his symptoms, we just couldn't stop.

“We try not to dismiss these symptoms, even though people may not think they're a big deal. They're not the typical things, but it absolutely can represent heart disease.”

Patel ordered another stress test, which Tom seemed to pass again, just fine. Only this time, Patel added another test: an echocardiogram, which determines how well the blood is pumping through the heart.

Patel noticed a problem in the left anterior descending artery, or LAD, region of Tom's heart, and a heart catheterization at St. Joseph Health System in Mishawaka was next. The contrast dye and imaging of the heart catheterization showed a very big problem: a 100% block of the widow-maker.

Patel described how over time, Tom’s heart developed additional blood vessels called collateral blood flow to feed that region of the heart with blood.

“Here we see this artery is completely blocked off. We actually see collateral flow here. So the other blood flow from other vessels are coming back and feeding this vessel,” Patel said.

The collateral blood flow kept Tom’s heart alive. Years of working out saved his life. Despite the major blockage, he had zero heart damage.

“With what he had, one third of people don't make it,” Patel said. “So this is very serious. Luckily for him, he was very active and exercising.”

But to save his life, that artery needed to be opened or bypassed. Tom’s procedure was done at St. Joseph Health System by Dr. Naseer Nasser, the interventional cardiologist at the South Bend Clinic.

“This is not a regular blockage,” Nasser explained. “This is a 100% blockage. This is called a chronic total occlusion.”

Thankfully, Nasser was able to place two stents in Tom's artery.

Twenty years ago, this kind of blockage would have likely needed bypass surgery or a stent procedure with entry gained through the leg. Tom's procedure was done through his wrist.

“The patient’s comfort is excellent because patient can get up and walk within a couple of hours after the procedure and they do not have limitations in their daily activities,” Nasser said.

The next day, Tom walked out of the hospital with a new lease on life and a Band-Aid on his wrist.

“The procedure is successful,” Nasser said. “The long-term results of this procedure is excellent.”

“Now that we've opened it up, his heart is squeezing perfectly normal and he's doing fantastic,” Patel said.

While the doctors credit diet and exercise for strong heart health, they also give credit to those spouses who urge their loved ones to get things checked out.

“The wife is in the room, the significant other is in the room saying, ‘Hey, he's just not himself,'” Patel said. “Sometimes I listen to that more than I listen to the patient, because they're the one looking at the patient. They're the ones looking at the patient (saying), ‘Something’s not right. He's just not acting his usual self.'”

So what caused Tom's blockage? Relatively high cholesterol that he didn't seriously manage and family history of heart disease. Tom’s grandfather on his father’s side had a heart attack at 58 and his uncle on his mother's side had a heart attack at 46. Tom is just 53.

These days, Tom watches his diet and is back to daily exercise. He also takes medicine, including blood thinner and cholesterol medicine.

Remember, it’s important to know your family history, get regular checkups, know your cholesterol and blood pressure numbers, report any strange symptoms to your doctor and listen to your worried loved ones!