How to recognize the warning signs for serious heart trouble

Superintendent McCarthy most likely underwent a procedure called balloon angioplasty – it’s a common treatment for patients with blocked arteries. The goal is to restore blood flow to the heart muscle – as quickly as possible and before any damage sets in.

The symptoms of a blocked or narrowed artery can start slowly – or come on quick. Knowing what they are can save your life.

Dr. Kim Williams, chief of cardiology, Rush University Medical Center: “The main symptom people will have is a feeling of pressure, tightness, squeezing behind the breastbone, and when that happens without any provocation, they should call 911 and get some medical help.”

Symptoms mount when plaque – the result of cholesterol and inflammatory cells — builds up in an artery, blocking the flow of blood and limiting the heart’s pumping ability. Lack of exercise, stress and a poor diet play a key role in the development of coronary artery disease.

Dr. Williams: “Humans tend to have, with the high fat western diet, tend to develop plaque in their arteries.”

It’s a common way to reopen blocked or narrowed arteries – during an angioplasty procedure, doctors thread a catheter from a vessel in the wrist or groin all the way to the heart. Once at the site of the blockage, they inflate a balloon carrying a tiny, metal, mesh stent that pushes the plaque out of the way, opening a path for blood to flow.

Dr. Williams: “The stent goes in there and sort of props the wall open. You can still have plaque hanging around, and it’s best to get the plaque out with medication, diet and exercise.”

Many stents are now coated with a special medication to help prevent the growth of scar tissue that could cause the artery to renarrow. Rush University Medical Center cardiologist Dr. Kim Williams says angioplasty is a safe procedure.

Dr. Williams: “Complications would be the very rare rupture of an artery, and these things don’t happen anymore. It’s such a common procedure, and people do it very well.”

In the case of a blockage, if blood flow isn’t restored quickly enough, the heart muscle can be damaged and even die. That’s called a heart attack. We don’t know if superintendent McCarthy suffered any heart muscle damage, but he is expected to be in the hospital recuperating for several days.

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