Heart Screenings Save Man from "Widow Maker"

September 1, 2020

Michael McClure had accepted it. He was getting older. He felt fine, but knew he got winded when he walked for any distance. “I chalked it up to being older and told myself I was out of shape,” he said.

But his wife, Rita, was suspicious. “I believe in getting all the screenings, especially since Mike’s mom and dad both had heart problems,” she said. “With that genetic component, I wanted him checked out.”

So, despite a global pandemic that was keeping many away from health care services, the couple scheduled a coronary calcium screening as soon as possible. The low-dose CT scan checks the coronary arteries for a buildup of calcified plaque, which blocks the blood flow and can lead to heart attacks.

“Up to one-third of patients with blockages in their heart don’t report any symptoms,” said Dr. Prasad Gunasekaran, Mercy cardiologist. “Many patients show up at a hospital with a heart attack as the first indication something is wrong.”

Michael is thankful to Mercy he wasn’t one of those people. “Michael’s calcium score was severely abnormal for someone with few risk factors for obstructive coronary artery disease,” Dr. Gunasekaran said. “We followed up with a nuclear stress test, which clearly demonstrated he had a high-grade blockage in his left anterior descending artery. That’s the one that’s commonly referred to as the ‘widow maker.’ “

Without wasting any time, Dr. Gunasekaran scheduled Michael for a coronary angiogram, which revealed 99% blockages in two places and a 100% blockage in another. He was immediately scheduled for open heart surgery.

“I’ve always believed an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and this proves it,” Rita McClure said. “We love Dr. Gun. He saved my husband’s life.”

Michael McClure isn't missing a beat during cardiac rehab. Because his blockages were caught and fixed before he had a heart attack, he doesn't show any symptoms of coronary artery disease. Michael McClure isn't missing a beat during cardiac rehab. Because his blockages were caught and fixed before he had a heart attack, he doesn't show any symptoms of coronary artery disease.

Because Mercy’s heart team caught the blockages before Michael had a heart attack, his chances for a longer, healthier life are much better. “Once a heart attack happens, even those who survive can expect lower heart function. Instead, Michael doesn’t show any symptoms of coronary artery disease and I don’t have any physical activity restrictions for him,” Dr. Gunasekaran said.

Michael says he can tell the difference after surgery. “I guess I was feeling worse before than I thought,” he said. “Now I can walk a lot further without being winded and I’m feeling a lot less tired. I’m glad my wife was all over me to get the test, and I’m glad we didn’t let COVID scare us away.”

Now, the couple is on a mission to share their story, hoping others will stay up to date with their screenings as well. “With all the COVID precautions in place, we figured the hospital is the safest place to be right now,” Rita said. “You have to weigh the risks and consequences, and in our case, there’s no doubt we made the right decision.”

Mercy’s heart team has seen a significant increase in patients who not only aren’t getting screenings, but also aren’t coming to the ER when they have heart attack symptoms. “They’re worried about contracting COVID,” Dr. Gunasekaran said. “But please remember that ‘time saved is muscle saved.’ The sooner you get in, the more we can do to help you and minimize ongoing issues.”

Many procedures don’t require open-heart surgery, and Mercy Springfield has the most experienced heart team in the region when it comes to clearing blockages and placing stents by going in through arteries in the arm. “Even the most complex of blockages can be fixed with stenting procedures and patients are discharged the same day,” Dr. Gunasekaran said. “They feel better right away and spend the night in their own beds.”

If you have risk factors for heart disease, including a family history, diabetes, smoking, high cholesterol and/or high blood pressure, you can schedule your own calcium screening by clicking on the link below.