He Didn’t Expect Heart Disease at 41 — Until His Cardiologist Friend Took a Look
A common misconception about heart disease nearly precipitated a heart attack in 41-year-old Dennis Mathew.
Thanks to a friend who’s a cardiologist at Einstein Healthcare Network, he survived. Judging by the response to his posts about it on social media, scores of people are similarly misled.
The misconception? That you’re unlikely to have heart disease if you’re young. That notion enabled Mathew to shrug off the chest pain that had been dogging him while he was running, even though heart disease runs in his family.
“Starting in January, every time I ran, I’d get such a sharp pain in the center of my chest that I’d stop running. I could only walk,” says Mathew, an executive at Comcast. “At first, I thought it was congestion from a chest cold, so I didn’t do anything about it.”
Although four of his paternal uncles developed coronary artery disease in their late 40s, he believed he was much healthier than they were. He ate what he thought was a healthy diet, he exercised regularly – he ran three or four days a week – and he was young.
“It didn’t occur to me it could be a heart-related issue,” he says. That impression was reinforced when a visit to an urgent care center – after the chest cold resolved but the pain didn’t – resulted in an electrocardiogram (EKG) that he was told was normal.
Then he mentioned his symptoms to Einstein’s Jon George, MD, one Sunday in January, when both were leaving services at the church where they belong. Dr. George was alarmed.
“The quality of the symptoms was very concerning for coronary artery disease” he says. Dr. George, a social friend of Mathew’s, is Director of the Cardiac Catheterization Laboratory at Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia. He scheduled Mathew for an office visit immediately.
‘Markedly Abnormal’ Tests
His EKG was “markedly abnormal,” Dr. George says. The stress test was, too. Other diagnostic tests revealed Mathew had diabetes and high cholesterol and, yes, coronary artery disease.
In fact, he had what cardiologists often refer to as the “widow maker” – an 80% blockage in his left anterior descending artery, which can cause a sudden, fatal heart attack. And his right coronary artery was 100% blocked.
“I was in shock,” Mathew says. “It really took me by surprise.”
Dr. George was somewhat shaken by the test results, too. “It’s something I do every day, but the shock factor for me was finding it on a friend who was my age.”
Dr. George inserted three stents in Mathew’s arteries in two outpatient procedures that went smoothly.
‘Go Get Checked Out’
Mathew completely revamped his diet, got his diabetes under control – and posted a warning on Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn: “We are blessed to have found this before anything horrible happened!” he wrote. “If you haven’t done so recently, GO GET CHECKED OUT!!!!”
His initial LinkedIn post had nearly 5,000 likes and nearly 500 comments. “It surprised me,” Mathew says. “I got message after message from folks telling me they’re going to get checked out and thanking me for bringing this to their awareness.”
Some people who read the post called Dr. George for an appointment. The calls “lead me to believe there are so many people out there who have intermittent symptoms and a family history who have not gotten evaluated and are relying on the comfort of how young they are,” he says.
“The lesson to be learned here is that if you have an extensive family history, age alone is not a reliable assessment of when you develop heart disease,” he says. As misconceptions go, that one could be costly.
Learn more about Einstein’s heart and vascular services.