Preventing heart attacks before they happen

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In the spring of 2012, Jane Davenport suffered a stroke, leaving her left side weak. If that weren’t bad enough, her doctors seemed to believe the brain attack was an isolated case.

Except for physical therapy to correct her balance, Davenport said no follow-up was recommended.

That bothered her.

“I knew something wasn’t right, “ the 65-year-old grandmother said recently.

When a friend suggested she see Dr. Leslie Satterthwaite Gaskill, Davenport made an appointment, one she believes saved her life.

Although death rates from heart disease have steadily dropped 60 percent from their peak in the 1960s, doctors still rely mostly on a handful of factors — cholesterol levels, blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, smoking and whether a person leads sedentary lifestyle — to determine who is at risk. Yet for 50 percent of men and 64 percent of women, the first sign of a heart attack is sudden death.

“It’s not just about good and bad cholesterol,” said Gaskill, a family and internal medicine physician in Johns Creek.

As a result, Gaskill said, thousands of people suffer heart attacks every day, having experienced none of those symptoms or obvious risk factors.

Gaskill, who launched a health and wellness program called Plaque Busters in 2008 to encourage healthy lifestyles in both children and adults, has seen her share of such patients. Lisa Passyn of Johns Creek is one of them.

“I was brushed off by my cardiologist because I did not have any ‘traditional’ risk factors,” she said. “Well, six months later, I had a massive heart attack at age 37.”

Davenport said she “was a walking time bomb for a heart attack” when she saw Gaskill.

“She knew the stroke meant there was blockage somewhere,” Davenport said. “She got on the phone and got me in to see a cardiologist that day.”

As a matter of course, Gaskill routinely uses advanced lipid and genetic testing, along with inflammatory markers to detect early stages of cardiovascular disease. None of the patients who has been compliant has had a heart attack or stroke, she said.

Like Davenport and Passyn, Gaskill said, many of the new patients she sees have a history of bypass surgery and stents for both strokes and heart disease. But instead of just relying on what she calls band aid “stents,” Gaskill said her goal is to reverse and prevent disease.

“Our passion is finding all of the root causes of atherosclerosis, which is plaque in the arteries,” she said. “Once we find all the root causes, we are able to not only reverse disease but prevent disease progression. One of the biggest keys for root causes is inflammation. No patient should ever need further stents or bypass surgery if the root causes are identified and treated appropriately.”

Because there was no obvious reason for Davenport’s stroke, Gaskill ordered a battery of test — advanced cholesterol and genetic profile — to get to the root causes not only of her stroke but also to determine what further cardiovascular risks she had.

Tests showed two arteries in Davenport’s heart were 99 percent blocked and a third was 80 percent blocked, Gaskill said.

Her training and expertise for cardiovascular prevention came from a host of leading experts, including Dr. Bradley Bale and Amy Doneen of the Spokane Heart Attack Prevention Clinic.

Bale and Doneen, authors of the soon to be released, “Beat the Heart Attack Gene,” which details their method for detecting cardiovascular disease at early stages, have gained international recognition for demonstrating that plaque buildup can not only be stopped, but reversed.

“The majority of the world now is focused on the plumbing problem, the blockage or obstruction in the artery,” Dr. Gaskill said. “The problem is the majority of strokes and heart attacks are the result of plaque rupturing through the wall of the artery, which then results in the bodies autoimmune response to form a clot or thrombus that then blocks the flow of blood in the artery to the brain or the heart.”

After a stroke, the risk for another one increases, said Dr. Jyoti Sharma, a cardiologist with the Women’s Heart Program at Piedmont. The risk is also great for people with autoimmune diseases.

While this is the first she has heard of Dr. Bale and Amy Doneen, Sharma said it doesn’t appear to be any different from what is already laid out in the 2011 Guidelines for the Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease in Women published by the Journal of the American Heart Association.

According to Dr. Bale, a third of heart attacks occur in people who have already had one and 25 percent of people with stroke have already had one.

“The recidivism is pathetic,” he said

“Simply taking care of cholesterol, for instance, isn’t adequate to stop disease,” Dr. Bale said. “You have to see each patient as the unique person they are and address each symptom one by one. When you do that, the inflammation is distinguished and the fire goes out of the walls of the artery.”

Without Dr. Gaskill’s thorough intervention, Davenport is convinced she would’ve suffered a heart attack.

“I was super lucky,” she said.