Written by Lisa Buffington | Photographed by Micheal Neveux
Tom McCarthy, 67, has been an avid exerciser for 40 years. In 2022, after noticing a decrease in his ability to perform cardiovascular exercise along with an increased feeling of tightness in his upper right chest, McCarthy received lifesaving treatment from the team at Torrance Memorial Medical Center’s Lundquist Lurie Cardiovascular Institute.
“At first I thought I might have pulled a muscle, but after years of performing intense exercise and tracking my performance, I knew something wasn’t right,” says McCarthy, who along with his wife, Laurie, is a hospital Patron. Laurie is also a member of the Torrance Memorial Medical Center Foundation Board.
When McCarthy was 50, he had a coronary calcium scoring (CCS) test, which uses CT imaging technology to measure the amount of calcium in the arteries that supply blood to the heart. Although the test showed McCarthy’s heart was strong, it also showed high levels of calcium, or plaque, in his coronary arteries. Plaque can cause blockages that increase the risk of heart attack.
“My results were in the worst 5% of 50-year-old males,” says McCarthy. “At that time, my cardiologist ordered all kinds of tests, which I passed with no problem.”
McCarthy continued with his exercise regimen and had follow-up stress tests, which measure the heart’s response to exertion, every five years. During this time, he experienced no symptoms of coronary artery disease.
“I would see Tom at the gym,” says Lee Kissel, MD, a primary care provider with Torrance Memorial Physician Network. “I knew he had a high score on his CCS test, and when I last saw him for a physical in June 2022, I encouraged him to go to a cardiologist.”
With an upcoming trip to Egypt and Greece on his calendar and his elevated risk of heart disease on his mind, McCarthy decided to follow Dr. Kissel’s advice and schedule an appointment with Ankush Chhabra, MD, Torrance Memorial interventional cardiologist and peripheral vascular specialist.
After reviewing McCarthy’s health history and his symptoms while exercising, Dr. Chhabra ordered another round of testing—including a stress test, which McCarthy again passed easily. “When I listened to Tom describe his symptoms, I was concerned—even after the test results came back normal,” says Dr. Chhabra. “Given Tom’s health history, I ordered an angiogram to check for blockages in his coronary arteries.”
The angiogram revealed McCarthy’s left anterior descending artery was 95% blocked—which could have led to a devastating heart attack. “Heart attacks resulting from blockages in this artery are known as widowmakers,” says McCarthy. “Fortunately, after years of exercising, I had built up collateral circulation in my other arteries, which were supplying extra blood to my heart.”
The Right Treatment
On the same day Dr. Chhabra performed the angiogram, McCarthy and his wife—a former cardiac nurse—met with a cardiac surgeon and an interventional cardiologist to discuss treatment options. “I could have either coronary artery bypass surgery, which would require a long recovery, or a minimally invasive angioplasty and stent procedure, which would have a much shorter recovery time,” says McCarthy. “However, the stent procedure would be tricky due to where the blockage was located.”
McCarthy opted to have Torrance Memorial interventional cardiologist James Matchison, MD, perform his angioplasty and stent procedure. Dr. Matchison specializes in challenging interventional cardiology cases, including treating blockages in the left anterior descending artery.
Through a small incision in McCarthy’s femoral artery, Dr. Matchison guided a balloon-tipped catheter to his left anterior descending artery, cleared the blockage and placed a stent to prop the artery open. “We were able to restore 100% blood flow through Tom’s artery,” says Dr. Matchison. “Tom spent one night in the hospital and was back to normal activities within a few days.”
Returning to Baseline
Although McCarthy missed the first leg of his trip to Egypt, he was still able to visit Greece—and his athletic performance quickly returned to baseline. “After the procedure, I have no pain or pressure in my chest while exercising, and my performance abilities have increased,” says McCarthy. “Two weeks after I got out of the hospital, I jumped off a 25-foot platform into the Aegean [Sea], and my doctors say there are no limitations to what I can do.”
McCarthy says although he initially ignored his symptoms and attributed them to normal aging, he’s glad he spoke up—and thankful his physicians listened. “It’s so important to know your body and take concerning symptoms seriously—especially if you have a history of heart problems. I’m thankful my doctors listened to me and that I had access to proven treatments provided by a team of cardiology experts.” •