When Heart Disease Sneaks Up

Unexpected test saved Craig Johnson from a heart attack

"My heart had always been a ticking time bomb—I just didn't know it. Trusting Dr. Benge’s years of experience saved me from having a heart attack."

Craig Johnson, 60, of Mundelein, Illinois has a family history that gave clear warning: both of his grandfathers had died from heart attacks, and his mother had a heart attack as well. However, Johnson never had any signs or symptoms and no prior test results that indicated heart disease. So when he began feeling fatigued and had trouble keeping up with his wife on bike rides, he chalked it up to being “old and out of shape.”

But the truth was that one of Johnson’s main arteries was heavily clogged. His blood was struggling to circulate, and he was at high risk for having a deadly heart attack. Luckily, an alert physician and quick, expert cardiac care at Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital led to treatment that prevented surgery and likely saved Johnson’s life.


Office Visit Leads to Surprise Test Result

Unrelated to his heart, Johnson had begun having some trouble and discomfort with swallowing and made an appointment with his gastroenterologist. As a matter of routine before further testing, his physician ordered a stress test for Johnson. The stress test results indicated a potential problem, which led to a coronary angiogram performed by Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital cardiologist William Benge, MD, FACC.

It was after regaining full consciousness following the procedure that Johnson was shocked to learn that he had a 70 to 80 percent blockage in one of his major arteries and that—without treatment—he would have been at serious risk for a heart attack in the next six months.

“Dr. Benge was really emphatic and convinced me that we needed to check for blockage after my stress test results,” said Johnson, 60, of Mundelein. “Thankfully I listened to him, and he was able to open the blocked artery and have me home after a short stay in the hospital for observation.”

“As in Craig’s case, heart disease often reveals no symptoms,” said Benge, who specializes in interventional cardiology. “The so-called ‘silent killer’ sneaks up on millions of people, which is why heart disease remains the number one cause of death for both men and women in America and throughout the world.”


Angiogram, Angioplasty—How They Work

To check the flow of blood to and from the heart, Benge performed a coronary angiogram on Johnson at the advanced Cardiac Catheterization Lab at Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital. During an angiogram, a catheter is guided through an artery to the heart to view blood flow through the artery. X-ray images record the blood flow through the coronary arteries and show how the heart is pumping blood. The doctor views these images in real-time to find where the blockage exists.

Once Johnson’s blockage was detected, Benge performed an angioplasty—threading a thin, flexible tube from the groin to the damaged artery, where a small balloon inflates the blocked artery to reopen it, and a metal coil called a stent is placed in the artery to help keep it open.


Avoiding Major Heart Surgery

More and more, cardiac patients can be treated with less invasive treatments—and often on an outpatient bases—that make surgery unnecessary. Angioplasty is one of several procedures performed at Northwestern Lake Forest's advanced cardiac catheterization lab, including the diagnosis and treatment of irregular heart rhythms and managing the intricacies of pacemakers and defibrillators.

The Northwestern Lake Forest Cardiac Rehabilitation Program complements the cardiac treatment and services and minimizes the effects of cardiac illness through monitored exercise, risk management and nutrition counseling. Additionally, the Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute in Lake Forest brings the extensive clinical and research experience from the Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute of Northwestern Memorial Hospital to the treatment of patients in Lake County.

“I was really fortunate with the care I received. The first doctor did the right thing when he noticed that something was not right, and Dr. Benge did the right thing in spelling out to me the serious risk of heart attack,” said Johnson. “This experience has taught me that you can’t fool yourself: you’ve got to be aware that it can happen to you, particularly if you have a family history, and you have to work hard to take care of yourself.”


Are you at risk?

Certain factors increase your risk of heart disease, including:

  • Being overweight or physically inactive
  • Family history of heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Diabetes
  • Smoking or being a former smoker

Schedule a check-up with a Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute cardiologist to evaluate your heart’s health. For more information, call 847.735.8550 or learn more about our Cardiology Services.

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