Routine Checkup Unveils Silent Heart Disease


“What else is on your mind?” That question from Steve Mathers’ primary care provider at the end of his annual checkup, unveiled a silent, unknown problem. He had heart disease, and it needed immediate attention.

Mathers was seeing Emily Fitzpatrick, FNP-BC, UnityPoint Clinic family medicine provider, for a routine visit. When she asked if there was anything else he wanted to discuss, his response prompted her to investigate.

“I just casually mentioned I had shortness of breath after I exercise,” Mathers recalled. “I walk five miles a day, but I’d had COVID a few months before, so I thought I hadn’t totally recovered. Emily jumped right on it.”

“Steve is a healthy guy,” Fitzpatrick said. “He walks a lot and has great stamina; he’s not on any medications and doesn’t have any chronic illnesses. When he told me he was having a hard time recovering after his workouts, I thought it was odd.”

During his appointment, Fitzpatrick had Mathers undergo an electrocardiogram (EKG), which uses electrodes to check for abnormalities in the heart’s electrical activity. She also ordered lab work and a chest X-ray. “Everything came back normal, which is typical if a patient isn’t symptomatic,” Fitzpatrick explained. “I still thought something was amiss, so I suggested he see a cardiologist.”

Stress Test Findings Lead to Urgent Open Heart Surgery

Fitzpatrick referred Mathers to Subhi Halawa, MD, UnityPoint Health interventional cardiologist. He first had Mathers do a stress test, which involves walking on a treadmill during an EKG. This allows the cardiology team to monitor heart rhythm, blood pressure and breathing to see if there is a blood flow problem in the heart.

“Unfortunately, he ‘flunked’ the stress test,” Dr. Halawa said. “He was able to exercise for seven minutes, but there were dramatic changes in his EKG, indicating severe blocked arteries in several areas. The nuclear images also showed the front wall of his heart was completely wiped-out during exercise. That’s what we call the ‘widow maker,’ because it is the typical cause when someone dies of a heart attack at home. A widow maker is when the main, or descending artery that extends down the front of the heart, is blocked, cutting off blood supply to the front part of the heart and causing it to fibrillate.”

Due to the results of Mathers’ stress test and nuclear images, Dr. Halawa performed a heart catheterization, where he found multiple arteries that were 90-95% blocked. It was clear Mathers required open heart surgery, and soon. He was immediately admitted to the local UnityPoint Health hospital and scheduled for quadruple bypass surgery.

From Unknown Threat to Grateful Recovery

After surgery, Mathers participated in cardiac rehab and is now back to his usual activities, including pick-up basketball games with his grandsons. He went from making a casual comment at a routine doctor visit, to a life-saving procedure he didn’t know he needed.

“I had absolutely no symptoms whatsoever; no idea something like that was pending,” Mathers shared. “I’m thankful Emily took what I said seriously. She’s extremely knowledgeable and proactive.

“I’m also grateful for the care I received,” Mathers continued. “The entire nursing staff was extremely professional and kind. They treated me with a great deal of respect. I’d never experienced anything like this before, and my family and I really want them to know how grateful we are for their care.”

To express his appreciation, Mathers nominated several nurses who all received an award from the hospital’s Foundation, which recognizes staff members who go above and beyond. One of the nurses also received the prestigious DAISY Award, a program that rewards excellence in clinical skills and extraordinary compassion. It is given to nurses in more than 2,300 healthcare facilities throughout all 50 states and in 15 countries.

Ultimately, Mathers believes it was Fitzpatrick’s actions that saved his life. However, she credits him for his outcome. “He was an advocate for his own health,” she pointed out. “If he hadn’t brought up his issue, I would’ve never known.”

One thing they both agree on – the importance of annual checkups. “Make sure all your concerns are addressed when you come for your yearly exam,” Fitzpatrick advised. “If you have an issue and it’s different than your baseline, or you have a specific concern, don’t hesitate to make an appointment more often.”

Log in to your MyUnityPoint account to confirm or schedule your annual exam, or find a doctor. If you have a health concern outside of your scheduled visit, learn where to go for care.