Cardiologist Mark Somers, MD, was a runner training for the New York City Marathon in 2007 when he first started experiencing chest discomfort. A heart catheterization revealed a blockage in his left main coronary artery, known as the “widow maker.”
The blockage was not severe, so Dr. Somers made an extra effort to treat his cholesterol and high blood pressure. However, the symptoms persisted.
“One morning, I was rounding and seeing a consult in the emergency room for a woman with chest pain and I was having a little bit of chest discomfort myself,” Dr. Somers said.
He asked a nurse he knew for an EKG. Soon he was on his way to Yale New Haven Hospital for bypass surgery. With a family history of heart disease, Dr. Somers always knew surgery was a possibility.
“Heart disease can happen to anybody,” he said. “I was able to see firsthand what many of my colleagues have only read about in books.”
The surgery went well and Dr. Somers was home a few days before Christmas, but the road to recovery took some time. He recalls feeling “about 80 years old” and struggling to walk around the block. He learned to appreciate the importance of cardiac rehabilitation, after a colleague talked him into it. Now he serves as director of cardiac rehab, part of the Heart and Vascular Center at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital.
In addition to the physical toll of a major surgery, Dr. Somers dealt with a bout of depression, which can be common after a cardiac event. At one point, Dr. Somers broke up with his girlfriend, not wanting to be a burden to her. She stuck by him and now they are married and have a daughter.
“I learned that there are times you need to lean on the people who love you,” he said.
Today, Dr. Somers is open with his patients about what he went through. He shows them his scar. He talks to them about the phases of healing and about how they might feel after surgery. He also talks to his patients about the importance of recognizing the signs of heart disease. He believes recognizing those first moments of chest discomfort may have saved his life.
He says often the temptation is, especially if one is younger, is to say, “‘Oh, it can’t be heart disease. I’m too young for that,’” Dr. Somers said. “I tell my patients, pay attention to your symptoms.”
Chest pain is just one warning sign. Other symptoms can include shortness of breath, fatigue, nausea and a cold sweat. Regular exercise can help you keep track of subtle but important changes to your heart health.
“I tell people, when the car sits in the driveway, it can look great,” Dr. Somers said. “But you have no idea how well it runs until you take it out on the road.”