Coronary calcium screening helps detect possible heart attack waiting to happen

Published: Sep. 2, 2020 at 5:42 PM CDT
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Ever wondered what your chances are of having a heart attack?

You feel pretty good, no major health problems, just wondering if the ’ol ticker is heading towards hard times as the years roll on.

Well, there is a way to find out and it could save your life.

That’s what happened to Michael McClure.

We caught up with him on Wednesday at Mercy’s Hammons Heart Institute where he was going through his work-out routine after open-heart surgery in June. McClure had 99 percent blockage in two arteries and 100 percent blockage in another.

McClure, who turned 70 on Tuesday, may not have lived to see that birthday had he not gone to get a heart scan. McClure wasn’t aware of his dire situation because he never had any traditional heart attack symptoms.

The only problem that prompted him to be checked out?


“I’d walk maybe a long block and I’d be a little out of breath but I’d chalk that up to being a little older and out of shape,” McClure said.

“You’d be surprised that up to a third of heart attacks happen very silently,” said Dr. Prasad Gunasekaran, a Mercy cardiologist. “You don’t have to have the classic elephant sitting on the chest kind of story. A lot of times we see people with reflux-disorder symptoms and things like that who actually end up having a heart attack.”

At the urging of his wife, Michael had a coronary calcium screening where a CT scan checks your arteries for a buildup of calcified plaque which can cut off blood flow and lead to a heart attack.

“Michael’s score (on the calcium screening) was severely abnormal for someone with so few risk factors for obstructive artery disease,” Dr. Gunasekaran explained. “We followed up with a nuclear stress test, which clearly demonstrated he had a high-grade blockage in his left anterior descending artery. That’s the one that’s commonly referred to as the ‘widow maker.’ "

An angiogram then revealed the extent of McClure’s blockage and he was immediately scheduled for open heart surgery.

McClure is a typical example of the best candidate for a calcium screening because the test is not actually intended for high-risk patients like those with high blood pressure, diabetes, smokers or high cholesterol.

It’s for those where the risk is unknown.

So who should consider having the test done if no heart attack symptoms are present?

“It’s for anybody who is in their 30′s and 40′s where people in your family have had a history of risk factors but not necessarily heart disease,” Dr. Gunasekaran said. “For example if multiple people in your family have diabetes but none of them have had a heart attack or perhaps multiple people have high cholesterol issues in your family but you want to estimate what your risk is going forward.”

The CT scan takes less than 30 minutes and you are exposed to a small amount of radiation as with any x-ray type procedure. If your calcium score does come up high doctors will work with you to control those risk factors like blood pressure or cholesterol. And even though a lot of people are avoiding a trip to the doctor during this time of COVID, McClure is certainly glad he didn’t wait.

“Probably a heart attack waiting to happen,” he said of the consequences had he not gone to the doctor. “I’d have probably just keeled over one day.”

Dr. Gunasekaran said the pandemic is definitely having an effect on people being reluctant to come to the doctor which could have catastrophic results.

“If we keep neglecting our routine care we end up in a lot of emergencies,” he said. “Anytime we wait on a heart attack we have to keep in mind that time is muscle. The more time you lose, the more muscle we lose and more complications we end up with.”

If you’d like more information on the calcium screening you can go to:

Copyright 2020 KY3. All rights reserved.

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