Feeling chest pressure or short of breath when you exert yourself?

See a doctor ASAP
April 9, 2015

One year ago, on a nice day in April, Mike Kamerzell went out for a stroll in his hometown of Windsor. He walked. He felt good. He enjoyed the beautiful afternoon and the company of his wife, Renae.

But as they began to head up a small hill, Mike experienced twinges in his chest. He also got out of breath. When he stopped walking, he felt fine again.  He’d noticed these symptoms a few times before, but on this day, they seemed worse.

Thinking he might be developing asthma, Mike, 54, made an appointment with his primary care physician. She referred him to University of Colorado Health Heart Center cardiologist Dr. Gary Luckasen, who ordered an exercise stress test.

Mike walked on a treadmill while his heart was monitored with a special ultrasound called an echocardiogram. The treadmill started out slow and flat and very gradually increased in both speed and incline.

“I made it to level three,” said Mike, a Windsor native who owns and runs Mike’s Driving Academy. “That’s when the pain and breathing problems started up again.”

“The heart is a muscle,” explained Luckasen. “If it’s not getting an adequate blood supply, you will know it because it will cause pain when you exert yourself. It’s common for people to start feeling symptoms when they do simple activities like walk or carry groceries. They usually describe the sensation as pressure or tightness. Shortness of breath is common. Others report arm or jaw pain, weakness, or nausea.”

After a follow-up appointment with Luckasen, Mike went to Medical Center of the Rockies (MCR) for a heart catheterization with UCHealth interventional cardiologist Dr. Matthew Purvis. In this procedure, a tiny wire was inserted through an artery in Mike’s wrist and threaded up to his heart. Dr. Purvis injected dye through the catheter and found that three of the five arteries inside Mike’s heart were clogged.

“One had a 99-percent blockage, and two others were 95 percent blocked,” said Mike. “Dr. Purvis told me that the blockages were too severe to fix with stents. I needed bypass surgery.”

What Mike thought was asthma turned out to be coronary artery disease. “I was surprised,” he said. “I did have high cholesterol and a family history on my mother’s side, but I figured I had ten more years before I needed to worry about it.”

Cardiothoracic surgeon Dr. Mark Douthit performed a triple bypass on Mike at MCR in early May, 2014. Mike stayed there for five nights then went home to continue recovering. He started cardiac rehab a month later, and though he completed the 12-week program months ago, still goes to the MCR cardiac rehab gym to exercise two or three times a week.

Mike was fortunate, said Luckasen. “Fifty percent of the time, the first symptom of heart disease is a heart attack. And when they have that first heart attack, about half of those people die before they ever get to a hospital.”

Luckasen advises both men and women who have any of the heart symptoms listed above to see their doctors right away. “Don’t be afraid to cry wolf,” he emphasized. “If you have a question or symptom and it turns out to be nothing, that’s perfectly OK. That’s much better than the alternative.”

“I’m doing great,” said Mike, who is looking forward to turkey hunting in Kansas this spring. He and Renae have three children, all in their twenties. “I keep telling them, ‘See what I went through? Make sure you stay healthy!’”

“You can’t change your age or your family history,” said Luckasen. “But you do have control over these things. If you follow these steps, your chances of living a long, healthy life are extremely high.”

Give Heart Disease the Heave Ho

UCHealth Heart Center cardiologist Dr. Gary Luckasen says the four most important things you can do to lower your risk of heart disease are:

  • Stop smoking. It increases blood pressure and the tendency for blood to clot and decreases exercise tolerance and HDL (good cholesterol).
  • Move your body. If you’re inactive, start with a five-minute walk twice a day, every day. Work your way up from there.
  • Control your weight. If you carry too much fat, especially around your waist, your cholesterol, triglycerides and blood pressure are likely to be higher. So is your risk of conditions that contribute to heart disease, like diabetes and sleep apnea.
  • Take statins and baby aspirin under the direction of your physician, but only if your cholesterol is high or you already have heart disease.