Open-heart surgery hasn’t stopped FMCA members Paula and Nelson DiGennaro from enjoying their retirement or pursuing their dream of full-timing.
But it sure scared them.
In December 2005 Nelson underwent bypass surgery for five blocked coronary arteries. Doctors found blockages of 95 percent, 90 percent, 75 percent, 60 percent and 50 percent.
Paula and Nelson said recognizing early symptoms of arteriosclerosis saved his life. “I was very lucky because the doctor told Paula that basically I should have been dead.”
The first symptom he noticed: shortness of breath.
At Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, he worked on the third floor of a building and always took the stairs, never the elevator. “I would briskly walk up the stairs all the time. At the beginning of the year I was feeling out of breath and I figured okay, I’m 52 years old and I weigh 240 pounds, so what should I expect.”
Working a desk job, he usually made regular exercise a priority. He frequently worked out on the treadmill at the exercise facility across the street.
A few times after taking a break from work to go to auto races, he’d get back on the treadmill and would experience slight chest pains.
“They went away fairly quickly. But toward the end of the year I’d walk up the stairs and would be out of breath and I was sweating really, really bad. That really triggered me that something was severely wrong.”
An electrocardiogram, or EKG, detected abnormal heart activity. His cardiologist thought he was a possible candidate for triple stints, but a heart catheterization procedure revealed four blockages, which required the bypass surgery. “They didn’t’ find the fifth blockage until I was actually in surgery,” Nelson said.
The surgery went well. Nelson spent a week in the hospital and returned to work six weeks later. His goal was to get medical clearance to drive their motorhome to the first Atlanta Motor Speedway race in March 2006. And he did.
He noted that his father underwent heart bypass surgery in his ‘60s but lived to be 91. And high blood pressure runs in his family, on his mother’s side.
Nelson and Paula encourage anyone with a family history of heart problems, or anyone who is experiencing any symptoms, even if they are subtle, to consult their medical provider as soon as possible.
“It can make a huge difference on your quality of life and your future.” Nelson said.