“I felt out of breath walking from my parking spot to work,” says Thorng, who worked at a home improvement store in Rochester, Minn.
In retrospect, he recalls that during the previous winter, he couldn’t push a shovel full of snow more than five feet before getting chest discomfort and shortness of breath. He shrugged off the chest pain. “At my age, I didn’t think it’d be anything serious,” he says. “I thought it was heartburn.”
He took heartburn medication, but his symptoms worsened. Knowing something was wrong, he went to the Emergency Department at Saint Marys Hospital on Mayo Clinic’s Rochester campus. It may have saved his life.
Diagnostic tests suggested a major problem with his heart. An angiogram, an X-ray test that shows the heart working in real time, confirmed it. Thorng’s arteries were significantly clogged, and the blood flow to his heart muscle was dangerously low.
Arteries are the supply roads that send out oxygenated blood throughout the body. The rivers of blood also carry cholesterol, which are dissolved fats. Over time, some of them stick to the inside of arteries. That buildup can harden and block the flow of blood.
For most people, the buildup occurs over decades. “Severely narrowed or blocked arteries are unusual for someone so young,” says Martha Grogan, M.D., Mayo Clinic cardiologist on Thorng’s care team. His heart was weakened due to poor blood flow, and his symptoms were life threatening.
Dr. Grogan recommended coronary heart bypass surgery. Thorng is the youngest man she has referred for this treatment. Just five days after the diagnosis, Lyle Joyce, M.D., Ph.D., performed surgery to create new channels for the blood to bypass Thorng’s blocked arteries.
Thorng was surprised — but not shocked — at his diagnosis. His father died of heart disease at age 56. But neither Thorng nor his father had realized the significance of their family medical history.
At Mayo, Thorng learned he has familial hyperlipidemia (FH), an inherited condition of extremely high cholesterol levels. When a family history of the condition is known, doctors recommend that cholesterol screening should begin between the ages of 2 and 10. Typically in FH, cholesterol levels climb during the teenage years.
“Early, preventive care measures might help avoid heart attacks and surgery later in life,” Dr. Grogan says.
Now that Thorng knows his risks, he’s making healthier choices. His cardiac rehabilitation team has worked with him on healthy diet choices. The capstone of his ongoing recovery process is better stress management. “It’s a debilitating disease and hard to cope with sometimes, but I’m alive, and I’m happy, and it’s taught me not to stress out about the little stuff,” he says.
The article comes from our Sharing Mayo Clinic print publication.