Heart and stethoscope on table

Change in a Heartbeat

“The doctor would like to see you in the consultation area.”

Hearing those words at Florida Hospital Orlando made my stomach drop. My husband, Gary, had been in for a routine heart catheterization procedure, but I knew that good news was never delivered behind closed doors.

As I sat with my in-laws waiting for the cardiologist to come into the room, my mind raced. What would they tell me? Gary is a young, healthy guy. Surely, there wouldn’t be anything wrong. There couldn’t be anything wrong.

“He needs bypass surgery. And we need to do it as soon as possible. If he doesn’t have the surgery, he risks heart failure, which would mean a heart transplant.”

Wow. Not what I was expecting. But as it turned out, Gary had blockages in three of his main arteries—100% blockage, 96% blockage and 70% blockage. This was simply impossible. Gary is only 50, eats a primarily vegetarian diet and exercises every day. In fact, this heart cath was supposed to rule out heart issues so we could move on and figure out why he’d been having such bad indigestion. And frankly, he didn’t have the risk factors associated with coronary artery disease.

Except for one: family history. Over the next few days, we would come to understand from his parents just how powerful genetics can be. Gary’s dad had a quadruple bypass at age 55, both of his grandfathers had bypass surgeries in their early 60s and his paternal grandmother had coronary artery disease.

Genetics overrule lifestyle, it seems.

On Tuesday, February 7, I watched the love of my life and my best friend be wheeled away to have his heart stopped. And for the next 6 hours, my in-laws and I waited with our stomachs in knots, wondering if we’d ever speak to him again.

“He’s off the pump. The surgeon will be out to speak with you shortly.”

Gary’s heart was back beating on its own. That was the best news I had gotten in years! The “pump” is the cardiopulmonary bypass pump (also known as the heart-lung machine) used to keep the body alive while the heart is stopped during open heart surgery. A few minutes later, the phenomenally humble surgeon came out to report that Gary’s triple bypass had been a 100% success. He told us a lot of other things too, but honestly I didn’t hear them. I was sobbing. My best friend was going to be OK.

As Gary improved and was moved from the Cardiovascular ICU to the Cardiovascular Progressive Care Unit, we had time to reflect on the wild ride we’d had in the prior week.

For the past several months, Gary had been having severe indigestion. We’d switched from a vegetarian to a vegan diet in an effort to help him feel better. For a while, it worked. But then, he started feeling unwell after eating the blandest of foods. That’s when I finally convinced him to go get checked out. GuideWell Emergency Doctors had just opened not far from our house. On top of being a preferred Florida Blue provider, I knew they had a goal to get patients from the door to the EKG machine in minutes—just in case his “indigestion” was something more. Call it wifely intuition.

Not long later, the GuideWell doctors and nurses had done an EKG and a chest X-ray and had drawn blood. Everything came back normal, but the doctor was insistent that Gary be seen the next day by a cardiologist. “50% of patients with heart disease have a normal EKG,” she said. “Better safe than sorry.”

GuideWell Emergency Doctors made a cardiology appointment for the next afternoon, at which Gary received additional tests that still were not conclusive. “I just don’t like what I’m seeing on the EKG during your stress test,” the cardiologist told us. “I’m admitting you to the hospital for further observation.”

For what we thought was an overabundance of caution, Gary checked into Florida Hospital Orlando to be monitored until his heart cath procedure. We were upset, and we were irritated. We missed dinner with friends, an art festival and a Super Bowl party. Now, of course, I realize that none of that matters. Instead, I am grateful for the doctors, the surgeon and the nurses that intervened even when there wasn’t definitive evidence to tell them to do so.

Because of them, I have my best friend—my love—and we have a bright and healthy future together.

My lesson in this? Never discount your symptoms. Unless you’re a doctor, you’re not a doctor. What we thought were gastrointestinal issues was actually a ticking time bomb in Gary’s chest. In honor of February Heart Health Month, if you feel something, do something. See your doctor and find out what’s really going on.

"Change in a Heartbeat" was written by Betsy Appelsies, wife of Chef Gary Appelsies—Director of Healthy Eating, YMCA of Central Florida.
Originally written for Florida Blue: February 27, 2017