For more than three years, Gary Saunders struggled with heartburn. Antacids helped – if he took a handful of them.
He figured it was stress or the "12 to 15 cups of coffee" he drank each day to fuel his long hours managing a busy 24-hour retail store. In his mid-50s, he was exhausted all the time.
Nagging from family members and frustration with the constant heartburn finally sent him to get a checkup. It was his first visit to the doctor in years.
Learning he had high blood pressure and high cholesterol wasn't too surprising. The surprise was tests showed he may have had a heart attack.
"I didn't think you could have a heart attack and not even know," he said.
Saunders, who lives in Mohton, Pennsylvania, felt sure the test results were a mistake. He wanted it taken off his medical record. So, a few months later, he underwent more testing.
As he was leaving, the technician who administered the tests wished Saunders good luck in a way that made him feel uneasy. Sure enough, right when he got to work, the doctor called and said, "We need to see you as soon as possible."
Saunders had significant blockages in three main arteries in his heart. Days later, doctors tried repairing the problems with stents. The procedure was unsuccessful; he needed a triple bypass surgery. However, because Saunders had been on a blood thinner, the surgery had to be delayed until the medication was out of his system.
"I went to bed every night for nine days wondering if I was going to wake up again," Saunders said.
It was stressful for his family, too.
"He was told not to do anything," said Maureen Banks, Saunders' daughter. "For my dad, that's impossible. He can't not do anything."
The triple bypass was a wake-up call.
Saunders reduced his intake of unhealthy fats and carbohydrates in his diet and pledged to "eat more of the green stuff."
"I told my wife I felt like a rabbit," he said.
The surgery went well. Saunders later underwent cardiac rehab to rebuild strength and learn more about how to manage his risks. He also learned that his risk of heart disease was elevated because of a family history. His dad died from a second heart attack, and a brother also had a heart attack and died from heart failure; both died in their 50s.
Looking back, Saunders realized he missed other warning signs.
A lifelong outdoorsman, Saunders used to be able to walk for miles, but as much as three years before his heart surgery he found himself out of breath and tired after a half mile.
"I thought it was just my age and getting older," he said. "It wasn't that I was unmotivated, I was just tired all the time."
He also believes one of his supposed indigestion bouts was likely a heart attack.
Banks said the family assumed her dad was fatigued because of his intense work schedule.
"He would sometimes leave for work by 3:15 a.m. and not come home until after 8 p.m., so when he was exhausted it didn't seem strange," she said. "We never once thought it was heart disease."
Banks said the bypass surgery had an immediate impact on her dad.
"He looked at me and said, 'I got a second chance to be healthier and be better,'" she said. "I never saw him smile as much."
Today, Saunders said his energy is significantly improved. He's cut his coffee intake to 1 1/2 cups each day and has more energy.
"It's like night and day," he said. "I feel like they put a new battery in me."
He further modified his diet and recently lost 18 pounds. He sees his doctor every four months and has both his blood pressure and cholesterol under control.
Saunders also makes time for exercise, including walks with his dogs – a black lab named Hunter and a chocolate lab named Turner that his brother had adopted shortly before he died.
"They are my life," Saunders said. "I don't care where I am in the house, they are right on my heels."
Saunders, now 60, said his experience also raised awareness about the risks of heart disease among his kids.
"I lost my dad and lost my brother," Saunders said. "It's either take care of yourself or you're not going to be around. It's not an option. You have to do whatever you can to stay healthy."
Stories From the Heart chronicles the inspiring journeys of heart disease and stroke survivors, caregivers and advocates.
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