Lessons of the Heart

After treatment for cardiac problems, these local residents are feeling much better—and they’ve learned a thing or two.

How to protect your heart? We’ve all seen the lifestyle advice: don’t smoke; eat more leafy green vegetables and fewer salty, fatty and sugary foods; get plenty of exercise and see your doctor regularly for blood-pressure and cholesterol checks and medications if you need them. But sometimes a neighbor’s personal story can motivate us as mere advice can’t. So BERGEN marks American Heart Month by reporting on four local residents who have been treated for heart disease—and learned its lessons.

Giving Up a Treat

Call yourself a hot-dog fan? Step aside for Janet Rasmussen, 70, of Ridgefield Park, who gobbled down a half-dozen of them weekly at one point. But she’s only had one occasionally since her heart attack November 8, 2015. “It’s easier not to have them in the house,” she says. Though this retired real estate title insurance clerk never smoked or drank and didn’t go for sweets, she confesses: “I was a salt girl. Salt and bread.” She also had a family history of cardiovascular disease. Her mother and her grandmother died of strokes, and congestive heart failure claimed an older sister’s life five years ago.

But on that November day Rasmussen did something right. She recognized that the pain that had kept her up all night wasn’t arthritic. “It went from my elbows down into my hands,” she recalls—and a heating pad didn’t relieve it. “In the morning I felt a tightness in my chest.” She went straight to Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck. There she told nurses: “It isn’t like one of those movie scenes where the guy clutches his chest and falls down.” Indeed, heart attacks—especially in women—often don’t announce themselves in such classic fashion.

Interventional cardiologist Tariqshah Syed, M.D., found Rasmussen was having a heart attack and needed a stent inserted to open a blocked artery. After her successful procedure, she spent a day in the intensive care unit and two more days in the hospital. Explains the doctor: “She also had a ‘nonculprit’ artery with significant narrowing; that one was opened with a stent later.”

Lifestyle changes and medications can help minimize Rasmussen’s risk of a recurrence, Dr. Syed says. Thus her favorite food has become a rarity. Also, bacon and eggs used to be a daily ritual; now she allows herself real eggs just twice weekly, accompanying them with “fake stuff” that “if you really burn it, kind of tastes like bacon.” She takes two cholesterol medications and regularly sees Dr. Syed, who advises her to lose weight. She wasn’t a big exerciser before her heart attack and still isn’t. But she does take strolls in Overpeck County Park with her husband, Alan, 73, and enjoys watching the horses at the Bergen Equestrian Center.

The lesson for others? “Take chest-pain episodes seriously,” says Dr. Syed. “Don’t sit them out.” As for Rasmussen’s new no-frank ban, she puts that in perspective. “I’m alive,” she says, “so I’m not going to cry about it. Not having a hot dog is the least of anybody’s problems.”

Pictured above: Frances Addeo of Rutherford is back in action thanks to a minimally invasive procedure at Hackensack University Medical Center.

Breath Returns

Last fall, Rutherford resident Frances Addeo, now 80, could hardly clean her house. “I’d do two cents’ worth of work and have to sit down for a half hour,” she says. Things got so bad she sometimes couldn’t summon the breath to speak. In a minimally invasive procedure at Hackensack University Medical Center in November, a catheter-delivered clip was implanted to close a leak in her heart’s mitral valve, which connects the left atrium and the left ventricle. It was a medically busy autumn in which this four-time cancer survivor was also treated for lymphoma and underwent two cataract surgeries. But she’s feeling much better today. “I’m grateful for the condition I’m in,” she says. Carlos Ruiz, M.D., director of Hackensack’s Structural and Congenital Heart Disease Center, explains that the procedure Addeo underwent is used when mitral valve surgery is considered too risky for a patient. Studies show that if a repair isn’t needed in the first year, he says, patients at five years are doing as well as those who had surgery.

Addeo has learned to do exactly what her doctors advise. Her medical problems have kept her from driving for more than a year, and she hasn’t had time for exercise either. The safest way for her to return to exercise now, says Dr. Ruiz, would be under supervision in Hackensack’s cardiac rehabilitation program. “I used to go to a gym, and I had nice muscle tone,” says Addeo. “I’ll see how it goes.”

Pictured above:  Joseph Schilp with his laboriously restored 1935 Ford at his Saddle Brook home. In the past few years he’s been successfully treated for heart issues at Valley Hospital.

Tinkerer's Ticker

Saddle Brook resident Joseph Schilp, 72, retired manager of aircraft maintenance at LaGuardia Airport, had a heart attack 25 years ago. It was “silent”—unknown till heart damage showed up on an echocardiogram when he visited a doctor for a sinus condition. More recently he’s confronted some troubling numbers. In 2013 he had episodes of a racing heartbeat—tachycardia. Anything over 100 beats per minute qualifies; Schilp clocked 160 to 170. He underwent a cardiac ablation procedure at Valley Hospital in Ridgewood that “zapped” some heart tissue that had helped cause the problem. A defibrillator was also implanted to monitor his heart rate, which has stayed mostly in the normal range since.

A year ago he was feeling fatigued, and an annual stress test led to the discovery that his ejection fraction—a measure of how well the heart pumps—was down to 15. (Normal begins at about 50.) His cardiologist at Valley, Thomas Molloy, M.D., referred him to Kariann Abbate, M.D., a heart-failure specialist who prescribed a medication called Entresto. Last fall, his ejection fraction was back up to 45–50. One lesson of Schilp’s experience? “People do tend to do less as they age, but it shouldn’t be a drastic decline,” says Dr. Abbate. If you notice a drop in your energy level, she says, don’t put it down to age. “Get checked out to make sure you’re not missing a treatable condition.”

Today Schilp works part-time on a used car lot and tinkers with cars. He takes pride in his restored 1935 Ford, and on nice days takes his ’65 ‘Vette for a spin. The hours fly by when he’s working on an automobile, but Dr. Molloy reminds him that the bending and crouching involved don’t equal the activity at his aircraft job, when he walked across huge airplane hangars several times a day. So he tries to work in regular exercise at the gym. He eats steak less often—half the portion size of bygone days—and he and his wife Anne, 71, have almost totally given up fast food. Schilp knows his choices make a difference. His parents had heart attacks in their 60s, but were treated promptly and followed medical advice. They died, but it was only two years ago—at 94 and 92. Their long lives, he says, “I credit to modern medicine.”

Pictured above: a new type of dissolvable coronary stent put in at Englewood Hospital and Medical Center helped clear a blockage in Robert Algieri Jr.’s heart.

When Genes Are to Blame

There was lots of heavy lifting in Robert Algieri Jr.’s job with his family’s industrial scales company. But ironically, he was doing paperwork on the February day three years ago when he was stricken. “I kept saying to myself, ‘I’m 45 years old—I can’t be having a heart attack!’” recalls the New Jerseyan. But he was—even though he’d been eating right and getting plenty of activity. Heredity was the culprit; indeed, heart disease had affected several close relatives. The lesson he learned: If you have heart disease in your family, work closely with your physician to minimize your risk with appropriate medications and monitoring. And when you don’t feel well, be alert to all possibilities—even if you haven’t reached what you consider “heart attack age.”

Fortunately, at Englewood Hospital and Medical Center Algieri had a new kind of coronary stent implanted that is made of dissolvable material—after the blockage has been relieved, it safely melts away. That means there will be fewer obstacles should open-heart surgery someday be required. It’s an improvement on the treatment given Algieri’s father, who has had eight metal stents implanted—and is still around at 84.

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