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From a Simple Test to Open Heart Surgery: How a Cardiac Screening Saved George's Life

"I've always been one of those people who doesn't like doctors. I hate testing — I hate the inconvenience of it. But I cannot emphasize enough the importance of getting tested for heart disease. Without it, I would have been dead in 3 years."

The words of George Hill speak volumes when it comes to the impact that heart disease had on his life — and how a simple test was the single most important factor in saving his life.

George, who is 51 years old, has been a police officer in Chester County for 31 years. He has lived a life of action — which comes with some feelings of invincibility. "As a police officer, there are times we think we are indestructible," he explains.

Because of his active lifestyle — and no signs of heart problems whatsoever — heart disease was the furthest thing from George's mind. "I walked anywhere from 6 to 8 hours a day. I was never winded, never tired, and I had no numbness. All of those telltale signs of heart disease — I never got any of them," George explains.

 

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Through a collaboration between Chester County Hospital and local police departments, George was offered a free cardiac risk screening for first responders. Despite zero signs of heart disease, he figured he might as well take advantage. Little did he know, he would end up having open-heart surgery just a few months later.

The Screening That Saved George's Life

George's journey began when his beloved colleague, Sergeant Christopher Sambuco of Caln Township Police Department and Chester

County's Regional Emergency Response Team, died after suffering a major heart attack in April 2018.

The heart attack was the result of heart disease, but Christopher had never experienced noticeable indications of being at risk of any heart issues so the disease was undiagnosed.

In response, Chester County Hospital began offering free cardiac risk screenings to all first responders.

In April 2019, George went for his cardiac risk screening, and they tested for risk factors including his blood pressure and cholesterol. They also performed an electrocardiogram (EKG), which tests the electrical activity of the heartbeat. After the screening, a physician gave George an estimate for how likely he was to have a heart attack in the next 10 years.

George's risk of a heart attack was 10% — which he thought was nothing to be concerned about. "I'm thinking to myself — 10%? That's good. That's 1% over 10 years," he recalls.

To his surprise, the physician informed George that no, 10% was not good at all. And it was imperative that he move forward with further testing.

Fortunately, George's police department also offers free calcium testing, which George ended up doing — about 3 months later. This test uses X-ray equipment to produce pictures of arteries surrounding the heart to determine if they're blocked or narrowed by plaque.

George wasn't too concerned about the results of this test until he got a call a few days later from his primary care provider, Dr. Dennis Holgado, DO.

Dr. Holgado explained the results of George's calcium testing, which provides a calcium score between 0 and 400. Anywhere over 400 shows a significant need for further diagnostic testing for heart disease.

George's calcium score was 4,764.

"I was floored. I didn't believe it — my wife didn't believe. We thought, 'This test is flawed — this isn't possible.' I immediately went into denial," George says.

Dr. Holgado explained that they didn't know if there were any blockages at this point that could just be a layering of calcium. Either way, he should think positively.

Not long after, George's cardiologist, Dr. Donna Reed, DO, contacted George to discuss the results and next steps. She reassured George that there was no need to panic, but they needed to do further testing: a nuclear stress test.

More Testing — and An Unexpected Surgery

George with his wife and daughters

George's nuclear stress test, which shows blood flow to the heart both at rest and during activity, revealed a small distal ischemia — or lack of blood flow to the heart muscle. That, along with other risk factors for heart disease, such as his high calcium test results, made his care team concerned.

Even though he didn't actually exhibit symptoms, Dr. Reed recommended a catheterization, which is a procedure that involves inserting a thin, hollow tube into a large blood vessel to the heart to see how effectively the heart is working.

"At that point, I was starting to get a little frustrated," George recalls. "Nobody could definitively say whether or not I had a blockage. But Dr. Reed convinced me. The number doesn't lie — and they needed to find out why."

The cardiologist who performed George's cardiac catheterization was Dr. Joseph Lewis, MD, who woke him up right after the catheterization and asked if he could talk to George and his wife together.

George knew this wasn't a good sign, but he wasn't able to foresee the extent of it just yet. "Before I went in to talk to Dr. Lewis, I was prepared for a stent. I was not prepared for what I was about to get," George says.

Dr. Lewis explained to George and his wife that five arteries to George's heart were blocked 80% to 90% — and he would need open-heart surgery right away.

The surgery that George required was a coronary artery bypass grafting (CABG). A CABG involves using blood vessels from other parts of the body to connect them to the blood vessels above and below the artery that's narrowed. This way, the blood can bypass the blocked arteries to provide George's heart with the blood it needs to survive.

George recalls being stunned, especially considering he had experienced no symptoms and tried to live a healthy lifestyle. "My first thought was 'Why me?' I walk every day, I don't smoke, I try to eat well. I look at other people smoking cigarettes and think, 'Why does it have to be me?'" George remembers thinking.

Unfortunately, despite George's attempt to keep his heart healthy, his genes played a significant role in his condition. His father also had required bypass surgery, and at least part of the development of artery blockages was out of his control.

However, he had control now. And with a little convincing from his care team, he knew the surgery was necessary. Once he came to terms with it, he told them, "Let's get this over with."

Less than a week later, they did just that. On September 30, 2019, George went in for open-heart surgery.

From Surgery to Recovery With Few Complaints

Though he doesn't remember much about the surgery other than being in the operating room, George vividly remembers waking up to a welcome sight: his family, including his wife and two daughters, standing by his side.

"Before the surgery, I started thinking a lot about my family. I thought, 'What happens if I don't make it?'" he says. He was grateful to be able to see his family again, who were just a few of the many people who were looking out for George's wellbeing.

From the nurses in the intensive care unit to his cardiac surgeon, Dr. Steven Weiss, MD, who came to visit him every day he was in the hospital, George says everyone at Chester County Hospital was "phenomenal."

He was never left guessing about anything from the beginning to the end — even to this day. His nurse navigator, Abby Ferriola, RN, became his go-to for any question, big or small.

"If I have a problem, question, or issue, I could call Abby right now and she would have the answer for me in five minutes," George says. "She might not have all the answers, but she definitely knows where to get those answers. She really is incredible."

As for his recovery, George has few complaints and says that he didn't experience much pain. "A lot of people ask me about the pain, and it was uncomfortable, yes. But the only pain I experienced was in my neck and back — and that's only because the hospital bed was so darn uncomfortable," he jokes.

Despite the uncomfortable bed, he says the days went by fairly quickly. His care team came in constantly to see how he was feeling, to get him walking, and to make sure he was emotionally handling everything okay.

After 4 days in the hospital, George was able to return home — and fortunately, to his own, comfortable bed.

Post Heart Surgery: Returning to a New Normal

Within just a week of surgery, George was back to his walking routine of 5 to 6 miles a day. He also enrolled in Chester County Hospital's Cardiac Rehabilitation Program, which helps patients return to an active lifestyle, adjust to new eating habits, and minimize risk factors after heart surgery.

These days, George says he has a lot of energy. "I foresee life being better after all of this," he says. He feels younger — not that he necessarily felt old before. But he admits there may have been some minor symptoms before the surgery that he chalked up to getting older, such as feeling a little winded after walking up a hill with the dog.

"I want to do better than what I was doing before," George says. "That's a little difficult for me because I do have a sweet tooth. But my long term goal is just to make this a learning experience and realize that I have a second chance at life now."

While George is continuously working to improve his lifestyle, his perspective was changed the minute he woke up from surgery.

Because many of George's family members didn't live past their 60s, including his father, who passed away at 64, he had become used to the idea that he wouldn't, either.

"When I turned 51 this year, I thought — okay, I got 14 years left," he says. "Now, I can look past that, and I don't have that same doom and gloom outlook. Life is looking good — it's looking rosy," he says.

George has a lot of people to thank for his life — from those that pushed him to get the cardiac risk screening to his care team to his family who stood by his side through it all.

The cardiac risk screenings offered by the hospital may be simple tests, but they're effective and potentially life-saving. Even more, they allow Sergeant Christopher Sambuco's legacy to continue to impact the lives of first responders every day — including George's.

George may have once been resistant to health screenings and medical tests, but over the past few months, it's safe to say he's been convinced. "I owe everybody a debt of gratitude. I wouldn't be alive if it wasn't for them."

 

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Do you have questions about cardiac risk screening? Call 610-738-2300 to learn more about screening options available and to find a cardiologist near you.

 

About this Blog

Chester County Hospital's Health e-Living Blog offers a regular serving of useful health and lifestyle information for the residents of Chester County, PA and the surrounding region.

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