Don't forget how dangerous heart disease can be

Sometimes it's easy to get smug when coronary plaque is a reversible process.

When you see people day in, day out, week in, week out, drop their heart scan scores, reversing what could be a dangerous disease, you can sometimes lose sight of just how dangerous coronary disease can be.

Whether I like it or not, I maintain a reasonably active role in hospitals out of necessity. I do need their services occasionally for people with advanced heart disease when I meet them (when regression is not the initial conversation for safety reasons), or valve disease is diagnosed, or someone shows up with congenital or heart muscle diseases. In other words, although we focus on coronary issues, there's more to heart disease than just coronary disease.

This unfortunate case just served to remind me how powerful coronary disease can be. Elizabeth, an active 67-year old, finally came to the hospital after suffering 6 months of chest pain and increasing breathlessness. She hated hospitals and hadn't seen a doctor in 30 years since she was successfully treated for cancer.

In those 30 years, she'd been quite active with family and a small business. But she also smoked 2 packs of cigarettes most of those years.

After she was admitted to the hospital, it became clear that Elizabeth had experienced one, if not several, heart attacks along the way. The entire front 2/3 of her heart was non-functional. If that wasn't bad enough, two of her heart valves were severely diseased and dysfunctional: Her aortic valve barely opened (aortic valve "stenosis", or stiffness) and the mitral valve leaked severely (mitral valve "insufficiency", or leakiness). All of this was confirmed with conventional testing in the hospital, including a heart catheterization.

Elizabeth ended up in emergency surgery--very unusual, by the way, for valve surgery of the sort she had--but died in the first few hours after her procedure. Her heart had simply been too damaged from her heart attacks, and the extraordinary stress of surgery that included two valves was too much. She died on the ventilator.

Coronary disease is a very serious matter. When I see cases like Elizabeth, it boosts my commitment to tell everyone that heart disease--when identified early enough--is a controllable, preventable, even reversible process. For poor Elizabeth, she was much too far down the path of severe, irreversible disease that control or reversal was simply not an option. She was in imminent danger of dying even upon arrival.

It's exciting yet sometimes frightening to know what you have in your hands: The means to control this monster called coronary disease. Use it wisely. But don't lose sight of what it can do it you permit it to grow, fester, and explode.