As the anchor of a morning TV news show in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Scott Sanborn had to be an early riser. In hopes of getting in some exercise before work, he set the alarm clock even earlier and hopped on his wife’s glider at 1:30 a.m.
Within a few minutes, he felt pain in his chest. It came and went, so he continued working out. This happened three times before he gave up and headed to work. A few minutes before his shift, as Scott was putting on his makeup, a colleague noticed he didn’t look well.
Scott admitted he’d felt chest pain that morning. Asked if he wanted to go to the hospital, Scott figured everything traced to having gotten up early and being stressed.
His 2-hour program went fine. The pain, however, resumed as soon as he went off the air. So Scott went outside for a smoke.
“When I tell this story, I feel like an idiot,” Scott said. “People sometimes can’t believe how stupid I was.”
For about five years, Scott’s body had been trying to tell him something was wrong.
A longtime smoker who regularly fell off the exercise bandwagon and paid little attention to what he ate, Scott rarely saw his doctor. So he didn’t have any idea that he had high cholesterol and prediabetes.
Then 46, his job was stressful, in part because of the hours. Rare was the night he got more than six hours of sleep.
There were other signs, too.
Whenever he’d play basketball with his kids, or take on rigorous yard work, his chest would tighten. Yet he dismissed it because whenever he’d take a break, the pain would stop.
“I was in complete denial,” Scott said.
The morning of his ongoing chest pains, Scott pored through medical encyclopedias to determine what may be causing them. He decided it could be a hiatal hernia and figured he’d call a doctor later.
A heart attack never crossed his mind.
When his wife came home and Scott shared what happened during the day, she urged him to go to the hospital. Again, Scott refused, but agreed to call the doctor the next day.
At 11 p.m., the pain in Scott’s chest was so intense it woke him up. “It felt like an elephant was sitting on my chest,” he said. “Then, I knew something was drastically wrong.”
Scott’s wife called 9-1-1 and an ambulance soon arrived to take him to the hospital. A catheterization procedure found an artery 90 percent blocked. Doctors used a balloon procedure to fix the artery and installed a stent, a mesh-like tube, to clear the blockage.
“As soon as they opened me up, I felt immediate relief,” Scott said.
In the recovery room, doctors gave Scott a binder of information produced by the American Heart Association about what had happened to him.
“That’s when I learned that I was in major denial about my lifestyle,” he said.
He read everything he could, consulted extensively with doctors and made up his mind to make immediate changes.
“I remember my kids coming into the hospital room and I could see the fear in their eyes,” Scott said. “I hate to sound melodramatic, but that’s something you never want to experience as a parent and I felt terrible.”
He eventually lost 50 pounds and got his blood sugar and cholesterol back into healthy ranges.
As he learned more about the prevalence of heart disease – it’s the No. 1 killer in America, affecting about 1 in 3 adults – he decided to use his role as a news anchor to help others learn from his mistakes.
“I learned that 80 percent of heart disease is preventable,” Scott said. “Most people can control their lifestyle and avoid heart disease. I’m a prime example of what can happen if you don’t.”
Seven months after his heart attack – November 2002 – Scott spearheaded a five-part series on his experience and a half-hour special on heart disease. The show included a panel of experts taking calls from viewers.
The outpouring of support, calls and letters from community members who credited Scott with opening their eyes to their own risks was both humbling and rewarding.
“I had one woman call and tell me that while watching the program, her husband realized he had been suffering from angina and they went to the hospital and got a stent,” Scott said.
He threw his energy into sharing his story in the community, speaking at local events and volunteering for the American Heart Association’s Heart Walk event for about five years before pulling back to a less public role.
Scott’s recovery ended up being more complicated than expected. He was one of a small percentage of stent patients who develop restenosis—a condition in which scar tissue around the stent builds up, creating another blockage.
About every three to six months, Scott returned to the catheterization lab for another stent or brachytherapy, which burns away the scar tissue. Nearly three years later, after receiving six stents and two brachytherapy procedures, Scott underwent triple bypass surgery.
Scott’s ordeal was chronicled in a second five-part series that ran in spring 2005.
After taking a step back from public advocacy roles for heart health for a few years, Scott has jumped back into a more active role when it comes to raising awareness about heart health, sharing his story in a public service video and emceeing this year’s local Heart Ball.
He credits the AHA for giving him the information that helped save his life, enabling him to enjoy his wife, their six grown children and 15 grandchildren. He also wants to help others better understand the lifesaving changes they too could make.
“I’m probably in better shape now, at 58, than I was in my 30s,” Scott said.
Photos courtesy of Scott Sanborn
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