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How a routine physical detected this man’s dangerous heart blockage

Gary Aspelin has lived a life of wonder and adventure, traveling to almost 40 countries with his wife of over 50 years by his side. After a shocking discovery at his annual physical, Gary was faced with a new kind of adventure — fixing his heart.

Gary noticed that while doing yard work, he would often feel chest discomfort, but it would always go away. Because of his family history with peripheral artery disease (PAD) affecting the carotid artery, he decided to alert his primary care physician during his annual physical.  This led to a scan of his carotid arteries and a visit to a cardiologist.

Because of his family history with peripheral artery disease (PAD) affecting the carotid artery, he decided to alert his primary care physician during his annual physical.

The scan showed that Gary’s left carotid artery, the blood vessel that supplies blood to your brain and head, was 90 percent blocked. This blockage significantly increased Gary’s risk of having a stroke. His physician  referred him to Baylor Scott & White Heart and Vascular Hospital – Dallas for further diagnostic testing on his heart. An angiogram at the hospital showed not one, but three blockages in Gary’s heart.

At risk of a heart attack, he needed triple bypass surgery.

“During a coronary artery bypass grafting procedure, we are able to bypass blocked arteries using vessels taken from another area of the body to restore proper blood flow to the heart,” said Aldo Rafael, MD, a cardiac surgeon on the medical staff at Baylor University Medical Center. “This treatment significantly reduces a person’s chance of experiencing a heart attack and in turn, may save their life.”

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Like all of the adventures in his life, Gary took this new health journey in stride.

“When I found out I was having open heart surgery, I surprisingly wasn’t nervous about anything,” he said. “Everyone I had talked to had been highly recommended. My doctor said, ‘I would go to Baylor. I know the people and the work they do.’ I had confidence and faith in my care team. If something was to go wrong, at least I was in the right place.”

“Explore."

“Everyone I had talked to had been highly recommended. My doctor said, ‘I would go to Baylor. I know the people and the work they do.’ I had confidence and faith in my care team. If something was to go wrong, at least I was in the right place.”

This world traveler wasn’t going to let anything slow him down. He still had places to cross off his bucket list, and heart surgery would not stand in his way.

That determination is what fueled his quick recovery. After his surgery in June 2018, Gary knew the importance of walking after his procedure, as his wife is a retired nurse. During his walks down the hallways, the supervising nurses were all impressed by Gary’s speedy recovery — so speedy, they even had to tell him to slow down. He approached his surgery and recovery with the same optimism and energy that has carried him all over the world.

However, it wasn’t just the nurses who were impressed. Gary and his wife Janice were equally impressed by the care they received from their entire care team.

“Every time someone came in, it was a teaching moment,” Gary said. “They would always introduce you to the next person, tell you what was going on and why they were doing things. Everyone had my health and recovery as the most important priority. You felt like you were the only person in the place.”

As a retired nurse, Gary’s wife had a unique perspective into his care.

“I was impressed by the thoroughness of everyone explaining what was going to be done and giving us time to ask questions,” Janice said. “Information was given to me periodically during the procedure by volunteers and the operating room. This impressed me and allayed my fears.”

“Everyone had my health and recovery as the most important priority. You felt like you were the only person in the place.”

Less than a week after surgery, Gary was able to go home. He continued his recovery in the cardiac rehabilitation program through mid-November, attending all 36 sessions despite a few delays to continue his travels. Gary also interrupted his cardiac rehabilitation with a carotid endarterectomy to remove plaque buildup from inside his carotid artery in his neck, reducing his risk of stroke.

Today, he is healthy and back to seeing the world from a new perspective.

“I’m feeling great now!” he said. “Everything is working good. I participate in a Silver Sneakers program and walk a mile and a half every day when I’m not there.”

Gary’s story is a reminder of the importance of having a primary care physician. If his heart blockages had not been detected, Gary likely would have suffered a debilitating heart attack or stroke.

Related: Why you should have a primary care physician

Healthy and active, Gary now looks back with gratitude to the doctor’s appointment that saved his life.

“The lesson here is go to your doctor for your physical,” he said. “I was able to avoid permanent damage to my heart because I went for a checkup.”

Stop procrastinating and schedule your checkup today. One appointment could save your life.

About the author

Amanda Shoultz
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Amanda is the Marketing and Public Relations Consultant at Baylor Scott & White Heart and Vascular Hospital in Dallas and Fort Worth and a graduate of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette with a degree in Marketing. As Marketing and Public Relations Consultant, she specializes in sharing the stories of patients, caregivers, and advanced treatments at Baylor Scott & White Heart and Vascular Hospital.

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How a routine physical detected this man’s dangerous heart blockage