Heart-Core Determination

Organization: Service: Story Topics:
Women's Heart Disease

Tracey was training hard for a 5K Mud Run, but a month before the big race, she faced the challenge of her life.

To 44-year-old Tracey Hampton, the Irvine Lake Mud Run sounded like fun: climbing through obstacles, pushing her limits and working steadily toward the finish line. Little did she know that the Mud Run would become a metaphor for her own struggle with heart disease.

In January 2016, the eighth-grade science teacher was training three-to-five days a week, building muscle and endurance in preparation for the late-February run, but by mid-January, she experienced growing fatigue. One day, as she was walking from her car to her classroom, she began feeling as though she was breathing very cold air; her back hurt – a sharp pain between her shoulder blades – and she had to sit down. In disbelief, Tracey taught for the entire day, resting frequently. By the end of the school day, she knew something was definitely wrong.

She was seen in the emergency room at Orange Coast Memorial. Fortunately, she was in the competent hands of the cardiac specialists at the MemorialCare Heart & Vascular Institute. Tracey’s initial blood test showed elevated levels of troponin, a protein released by recently damaged heart cells.

Steven Schiff, M.D., medical director of invasive cardiology at the MemorialCare Heart & Vascular Institute at Orange Coast Memorial, ordered a series of additional diagnostic tests, which showed a complete blockage of her left anterior descending artery (LAD) – the artery that supplies blood to the front and side of the heart.

“An occlusion in this particular artery can be fatal,” explains Dr. Schiff. “We had to act fast.”

Genetic Connection

Tracey was relatively young, female and active. She did not fit the typical profile of a heart attack victim.

“Women who come into the emergency room with a heart attack are usually in their 70s,” says Daniel Bethencourt, M.D., medical director of cardiac surgery at the MemorialCare Heart & Vascular Institute at Orange Coast Memorial. “Tracey had high blood pressure, which is a risk factor, but more importantly, she had a strong family history of heart disease.”

In fact, both of Tracey’s parents had undergone quadruple bypass surgery at an early age – her father at age 49, following a nearly fatal heart attack, and her mother while in her mid-50s.

“Because of my parents’ experience, I knew I was at high risk for a heart attack,” says Tracey. “I tried to always take care of myself, eat well and stay active. But even with this knowledge, I was caught off-guard.”

Robotic-Assisted Surgery

Tracey’s physicians found that the LAD was the only occluded artery, which meant that they could perform a Minimally Invasive Coronary Artery Bypass (MIDCAB). Instead of a 12-inch sternum-splitting incision, Dr. Bethencourt made three one-inch incisions on Tracey’s left side, which provided enough access for the surgeon-controlled, robotic-assisted technology to carefully build a new path for blood to flow around the blockage in Tracey’s heart.

“The success rate is 99 percent, which is the same as traditional open heart surgery,” says Dr. Bethencourt. “The difference is less time in surgery, less blood loss, shorter hospital stays and faster recoveries. There is no downside for patients like Tracey.”

Just three days post-surgery, Tracey was walking in the hospital. On the fourth day, she was ready to go home. After five weeks, she entered the Orange Coast Memorial Cardiac Rehabilitation Program.

Rebuilding and Regaining

Supervised by registered nurses, the Cardiac Rehabilitation Program includes teaching about dietary changes, stress reduction and a structured exercise program. At the cardiac gym, patients gradually increase their tolerance to physical activity while being closely monitored by cardiac rehab specialists.

“After a cardiac event, we direct our patients into the rehabilitation program to address their specific limitations, lifestyle and risk factors,” says cardiologist Sanjiv Patel, M.D. “It has benefits beyond their immediate recovery. Long-term, cardiac rehab prevents future heart attacks and death.”

Tracey stayed focused, fully committed to participating in the Mud Run. After 36 sessions in cardiac rehab, she had regained her strength as well as her confidence.  

Six months after her heart attack, and just one day after her final cardiac rehab session, Tracey laced up her running shoes. She knew her goal, she knew her physical capabilities and she knew that her friends were on the sidelines cheering her on.

“My cardiac rehab nurse, Diane Carrig, even came to my race,” says Tracey. “I expected to receive exceptional care at Orange Coast Memorial, but I didn’t expect the type of support that I received. I consider myself very lucky.”

For more information, please visit MemorialCare.org/OCheart.

Featured physician:

Steven M. Schiff, MD

Medical Director Invasive Cardiology, MemorialCare Heart & Vascular Institute at Orange Coast Memorial
  • Cardiology, Internal Medicine
Daniel M. Bethencourt, MD
Featured physician:

Daniel M. Bethencourt, MD

Medical Director Cardiovascular Surgery, MemorialCare Heart & Vascular Institute at Long Beach Memorial & Orange Coast Memorial
  • Cardiothoracic / Thoracic Surgery