As the System Director of Cardiovascular Operations at Edward-Elmhurst Health, Catherine Smith is well versed in matters of the heart. It’s also deeply personal – heart disease runs in her family, being the cause of death of both her mother and grandmother. So, she’s taken steps to manage her risk by watching her weight, getting regular exercise and eating healthy.
But even a careful lifestyle wasn’t enough to keep heart disease from catching up with her. On a Friday morning, Catherine went with a friend to get a baseline heart scan – a non-invasive diagnostic test that measures a person’s risk for coronary artery disease (CAD). The scan looks for calcium deposits in the arteries of the heart, which may indicate the presence of plaque. This can cause narrowing of the arteries, which can lead to CAD and result in a heart attack.
"I wasn’t expecting them to find anything because I didn’t feel I had any symptoms or issues,” Catherine says. “But I got the scan … and failed."
Catherine’s cardiologist – a trusted friend and renowned interventional cardiologist, Mark Goodwin, MD – couldn’t believe she didn’t pass the heart scan. He asked if she had ever experienced chest pain or other abnormal feelings or symptoms. Catherine couldn’t recall chest pain but mentioned she sometimes feels an anxious or fluttery feeling when she’s frustrated or stressed. Her co-workers intervened, telling Dr. Goodwin that Catherine had experienced occasional chest pain that would resolve on its own.
“People think you need to have crushing chest pain but there are other symptoms of heart disease that are sometimes ignored,” Catherine says. “It’s important to listen to what your body is telling you. If you have pain – or even something that doesn’t feel right or isn’t normal – it’s important to talk to your doctor about it.”
Because of her strong family history of heart disease, unique symptoms and her co-workers’ intervention, Dr. Goodwin decided against a stress test and went with an angiogram instead. The following Monday, Catherine underwent the angiogram and was diagnosed with aggressive coronary artery disease in three places. Her left anterior coronary artery was significantly blocked in three places. Rather than undergoing open heart surgery, two stents were placed to open the blockages.
Today, Catherine is as careful as ever and continues to make smart lifestyle choices. However, she acknowledges sometimes the one risk you can’t change can outweigh all the others.
"I take good care of myself – I exercise, eat well and try to decrease stress by doing activities such as hot yoga."
“If I hadn’t had the heart scan, I would have never known about my heart disease and the result could have been much different, possibly a heart attack,” Catherine says. “Getting the test can give you valuable information regarding blockage in your coronary arteries. There are so many things people can do to learn about their risk factors and what they can do to reduce them. Taking the HeartAware risk assessment or getting a heart scan is a great place to start.”