Scott Acton was cycling about 200 miles a week in preparation for his yearlong ride around the world. It was a lifelong goal, and he’d already done a lot of planning, from getting permission to go to Cuba to setting up talks about the James Webb Space Telescope he’s been working on as a scientist at Ball Aerospace. Little did the 55-year-old know he’d also been laying the groundwork for something else — heart disease.
“I was one cheeseburger away from a massive heart attack,” Acton said.
It was early August 2015. Acton’s daughter was getting married in less than a week, and Acton was out cycling in preparation for his Oct. 1 big trip departure from Boulder. As he started off on his ride, he felt pain in his chest. This had happened before but always subsided after he rode a few miles. This time felt different, so Acton headed to the closest urgent care.
It was there that he was urged to see a cardiologist — immediately.
Acton had known for about two years that he needed to address his diet — he had high cholesterol among a few other issues — and he had started experimenting with ways to eat healthier, such as eliminating egg yolks in his diet.
“I was healthy in many ways, just not in terms of my arteries,” Acton said.
“Exercise doesn’t make you immune to cardiovascular disease,” said Dr. Patrick Green, a UCHealth cardiologist and medical director of Poudre Valley Medical Fitness in Windsor. “If you are exercising and have discomfort or shortness of breath more than normal, there is a reason for concern. Get it checked out.”
But he also warns that people can have heart disease without showing any symptoms.
“A third of the time, the first symptom is a heart attack, and of those, one-third of the attacks are fatal,” Green said. “Everyone should have their cardiac risk assessed periodically. The place to start is with your primary care provider.”
A stress test of Acton’s heart showed that he needed a quadruple bypass.
“I did not want to have this surgery. I had plans,” Acton said. “My daughter was getting married in three days, but the doctor told me that if I waited, they’d be having a wedding-funeral combo.”
Acton was able to participate in his daughter’s wedding from his hospital bed at Medical Center of the Rockies via Facetime, and he postponed his bicycle trip after being assured that he’d still be able to go — and that surgery would allow him to be even stronger than before.
“If someone has severe blockage in multiple heart arteries, their long-term survival improves from surgery,” said Acton’s cardiovascular surgeon, Dr. Steven Cummings, who, along with the MCR Heart team, operates on nearly 400 hearts a year.
Acton doesn’t downplay his experience after surgery — breathing tubes gave him feelings of asphyxiation and he couldn’t keep water down the first few hours. But the great staff at MCR helped him come through, he said.
“The human aspect they brought to my care was extremely important,” he said.
Acton said he also became depressed after surgery, which happens in 30 to 35 percent of cardiac surgery patients, according to Dr. John Rumsfeld, a professor of medicine in the Division of Cardiology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. Although the debate continues about whether heart disease causes depression or if depression causes heart disease, Rumsfeld stresses the importance recognizing signs and screening patients.
“Depression is a very burdensome disease that involves physiological changes such as increased adrenaline and a higher chance of blood clots,” he said. “We need to be proactive and screen patients, and should treat it as actively as we do high blood pressure or diabetes in cardiac patients.”
Besides medication, cardiac rehabilitation has been shown to help with one’s overall recovery, including depression.
“Cardiac rehabilitation doesn’t get the same attention as medications and medical procedures, but it’s been recommended in medical guidelines for many years, and there are many studies that show it works,” Rumsfeld said. “People in cardiac rehab recover more quickly and are less likely to suffer from depression.”
Within a few days of surgery, Acton was up walking MCR’s halls. A week later he was walking four miles, and the following week, he started rehab and got on a stationary bike. It was his cardiac rehab — being able to jump back on a bike — that gave him hope and helped him through his post-surgery depression, he said.
By April 2016, Acton was better than ever and departed for his 14,000-mile bicycling trip, which would take him to far-flung destinations from Canada and Alaska to France, Turkey and Australia.
“Be ready for some challenging months, but then be ready for good things on your horizon,” he said over the phone, from a bike path in France. “You can’t believe what I’m seeing and experiencing now and that wouldn’t have been possible had I given up.”
“Over the past few months, I have pushed my body to its limits and have encountered all kinds of pain — but my heart has been 100 percent,” Acton said. “If I were to underscore any message about my heart, it would be this: Don’t be fooled, exercising alone doesn’t make you immune to heart disease. No one should have to have this surgery. Find out your risks.”