A Stent to Save my Life

Earl Takata, an active 50 year old, describes himself as a "weekend warrior". Little did he know his warrior days would be used to fight an enemy he didn't even know he had - heart disease.

Earl and his wife were in San Diego for a few days of vacation in April, 2007. They went for a several mile run as they often do on weekends. "I noticed that I was feeling a little short of breath, but I didn't think much of it," he recalls. "We were waiting for a light to change and I decided to lean against the wall for a minute, and that's when I passed out."

No chest pain, no arm numbness... He collapsed out without warning. His wife later told him he was out for about 5 seconds. He fell to the ground and hit his face, resulting in a wound and swelling to the bone that protects the eye area, swelling his eye shut. His wife was understandably horrified and tried to awake him while a passing motorist dialed 9-1-1. Earl was rushed to the hospital.

He stayed there overnight and the next day doctors ran some tests, including a stress echocardiogram. Strangely, everything appeared fine, and he was released but urged to see his doctor at home. As soon as he got home Earl went to see his family physician and was referred to Cardiologist Michele Del Vicario, MD, who also serves as the Medical Director of the cardiac program at Little Company of Mary Hospital Torrance.

Earl was fit with a Holter monitor which tracks his heart beat throughout the day. The monitor showed the rhythm of his heartbeat was off - he had premature ventricular contractions (PVCs). Could they be the source of Earl's fainting? Many people have PVCs, but in most cases they don't cause serious problems.

Dr. Del Vicario knew something was wrong and like a detective determined to get to the bottom of a mystery he would not stop until he found its source. "I really believe in listening to your patient," he explained, "even if the test results don't confirm the patient's experience. Here is a guy with no chest pain, he's in great shape, and he passes out one time while exercising. The tests run at the hospital in San Diego didn't catch anything. But that can happen. We can get what we call a 'false negative'. You can't just stop there. You have to be willing to go the extra mile to find out what's really going on."

Dr. Del Vicario did a series of tests and scheduled Earl for an angiogram and an ablation. Dye was injected into his heart to identify exactly which small section of the heart was malfunctioning electrically, causing the PVCs. Once identified, that small section would be safely and carefully burned, which would stop the electrical short circuit and help restore the heart to its normal beat pattern.

What Dr. Del Vicario didn't expect to find during the angiogram was Earl's blocked arteries. He decided to stop and regroup to determine the best course forward. They wanted to be conservative and do the least necessary to restore Earl to health. What followed was a series of procedures to insert two stents to improve the blood flow to the heart, and Erol Kosar, MD, was finally able to perform the ablation to try to correct Earl's PVCs. They later checked to see if those two stents were sufficient, and it was determined that two more were needed. Another procedure was done, and Earl now had four stents to increase the strength of his artery walls.

Earl had been through a lot at that point, and turned to Little Company of Mary's cardiac rehab program to help him through his recovery. "They really helped me," he remembered. "This kind of experience is scary for anyone, and you start to question every sensation, asking yourself whether this is how you're supposed to feel or if you're feeling a symptom of a problem. You need to exercise, but you're afraid to get your heart rate up. It's like walking on eggshells all the time, waiting for the other shoe to drop. The people in the cardiac rehab program were wonderful and were very important for me. I could not have done it without them."

Earl met with nutritionists during his rehab as well and while he thought he was eating well before all of this happened, he is even stricter about his diet now. "I've cut out all red meat and I don't eat cheese or fats anymore. I understand now what an impact our diet has on our health. I didn't have any symptoms when this happened to me, I thought I was healthy. This is a silent disease. Now I'm much more aware. I realize just how aggressive and deliberate I have to be with the fuel that I put into my body."

Last September, Earl went back to Dr. Del Vicario for a checkup and took another stress echocardiogram. Unfortunately the results indicated that something new was wrong and Dr. Del Vicario needed to go in again and take a closer look. He noticed that when Earl was exercising at a high rate, his heart was not contracting correctly. So on a Friday in October another angiogram was done, and Dr. Del Vicario found that more blockage had occurred. The left anterior descending artery was completely blocked, and again, Earl had felt no symptoms. His heart had tried to compensate by creating blood flow around the blocked artery, but Earl was at risk of a deadly heart attack. They used a laser to clean out the blockage, and Earl healed so quickly that he was back to work by Tuesday.

On November 10, Earl went back for another stress test and checkup and was relieved to hear that his results were excellent. His heart was performing normally. Reflecting on his experience, Earl recalled, "I have a wonderful wife and two wonderful daughters whom I love very much, and when this kind of thing happens to you, you suddenly realize what's really important and how much you could lose. I could never have gotten through this without my family. They held me up more than they'll ever know during the hardest times of this ordeal. They gave me strength."

"This has really changed my life," he continued. "I don't take things for granted like I used to. Every morning I wake up and feel a deep sense of gratitude mixed with relief and joy to be alive and to feel healthy. I feel very lucky to be alive."