Simple Test From Wellmont Can Detect Heart Disease; Heart Institute Expands Screenings To Eight Locations

Eddie Neely ran at least two miles every day for 22 years, he did not smoke, his blood pressure was good and his body shape was remarkably trim for a man in his late 50s.

But this executive of Alpha Natural Resources could not outrun family history and bad luck when he was suddenly confronted with a stark reality in 2009. Cardiologists with the Wellmont CVA Heart Institute discovered a blockage of more than 90 percent in one of his heart arteries.

Undergoing a cardiac catheterization procedure at Holston Valley Medical Center, Neely immediately received a stent, which restored proper blood flow. He soon returned to work and resumed his beloved hobby of running.

What saved Neely was not chest pain or a helpful family member or friend noticing something was amiss. Instead, it was a simple test called HeartSHAPE® that showed he had an exceedingly high level of coronary calcium in his left anterior descending aorta. A blockage in this artery has been nicknamed a "widow maker" because of the high likelihood a person will not survive without prompt intervention by a cardiologist.

Neely recognizes the value of taking this test.

"It's extremely important," Neely said. "I've told friends of mine who are runners that the calcium score was the key to my learning about my condition. I wouldn't have found out otherwise. I would highly recommend getting that test because it can save your life."

A painless and noninvasive test that takes less than five minutes, HeartSHAPE® produces pictures of the coronary arteries using a 64-slice computed tomography scanner. From those images, medical professionals calculate a calcium score, with 0 as the desired number. Neely's was more than 1,000.

HeartSHAPE® has been available from the heart institute at The Heart Center, 2050 Meadowview Parkway, Kingsport; Wellmont Urgent Care, 378 Marketplace Blvd., Suite 5, Johnson City; Bristol Regional Medical Center; and Hawkins County Memorial Hospital in Rogersville.

Now, the program is expanding to Takoma Regional Hospital and Laughlin Memorial Hospital in Greeneville; Mountain View Regional Medical Center in Norton, Va.; and Lee Regional Medical Center in Pennington Gap, Va.

"We're pleased to add locations for this test because of its ability to detect a potential health issue with a person's heart when he or she otherwise might not have known," said Dr. Jerry Blackwell, a board-certified cardiologist and the heart institute's president. "We encourage anyone who is at risk of developing heart disease to strongly consider this test as part of their health review.

"Eddie's story is quite poignant in illustrating how heart disease can affect you when you least expect it. That's why it's been so important for us to establish multiple sites where this test is available. It's part of our multipronged approach at the Wellmont CVA Heart Institute to prevent cardiovascular disease, if possible, and respond swiftly, innovatively and appropriately in other cases."

Men with no known coronary artery disease who are 45 to 75 years old and women in the same condition who are 55 to 75 years old are eligible for a HeartSHAPE® test without a referral if they have one or more risk factors. These include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, tobacco use, diabetes, family history and inactive lifestyle.

People who are not in these age ranges or do not have risk factors need a referral.

Neely is an Abingdon, Va., resident, and he and his wife Jeni have four children and eight grandchildren. He said he started running in 1979 - usually hitting the road six days a week - and then made a New Year's resolution for 1987 to run every day that year. He renewed that resolution every year and embarked on an impressive regimen that included several marathons, including the Boston Marathon in 1993.

He even tried to convince his cardiologist and wife to let him run the day of his cardiac catheterization and the day after the procedure to keep the streak alive. They did not believe that was the best choice for his health, so the streak ended.

Neely also rode a bicycle, was an outdoor enthusiast and lifted weights. Because of his active lifestyle out of the office, he did not monitor what he ate.

His mother and father did not have heart disease, but some of his uncles on both sides of his family had died of a heart attack. Neely's only recurring heart-related issue was an irregular heart beat.

Then in 2004, as part of an executive physical, Neely had a calcium scoring test and received a score of 100. His physician prescribed a cholesterol-lowering medication even though his cholesterol was well within the normal range, and his numbers decreased even further.

"I wasn't too concerned but was shocked," Neely said. "Everyone on the executive team at Alpha was amazed because I was fit and trim and leading a pretty healthy life."

If Neely has any regret about his heart health journey, it is not taking another HeartSHAPE® test for five years. He participated in a physical in 2009 as part of Wellmont Health System's executive health program that included the HeartSHAPE® test. He was stunned by the score of more than 1,000 believing he had taken necessary precautions to address the potential for heart disease.

After that test, Dr. Larry Cox, another heart institute cardiologist, ordered a nuclear stress test. Dr. Cox discovered the bottom part of Neely's heart was not getting enough blood flow after exercise, leading to the catheterization and the stent.

These days, Neely is enjoying a more leisurely pace. Now 61, he retired from Alpha in November and works part time as a certified public accountant. He and his wife are planning an upcoming trip to Disney World with their children and grandchildren. And, yes, he still runs - now five or six days a week for a total of 20-25 miles.

Dr. Blackwell said Neely and others in the region who might have heart disease will benefit because the number of locations for the HeartSHAPE® test has grown.

"The Wellmont CVA Heart Institute is focused on delivering high-quality, compassionate care that empowers our patients in Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia to improve their lives," Dr. Blackwell said. "By expanding the HeartSHAPE® program to additional areas of our region, we are reinforcing that the best in expert heart care is close to home."

To schedule a HeartSHAPE® test, please call Wellmont Nurse Connection at 1-877-230-NURSE (6877). For more information about this test and other aspects of cardiovascular disease, please visit www.wellmont.org.