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STORIES FROM THE HEART: Heart disease survivor puts focus on health, giving back

Published: 12:22 pm CDT, October 3, 2013

It was over 100 degrees in Orange County, Calif., and Gary Stover was in the stands watching his son’s soccer team advance through a tournament.

After the second round of games, Gary’s belly started to hurt. He sat down to rest, and ended up passing out. Gary had a heart attack and was now in cardiac arrest.

Luckily, he happened to be next to the referee tent. Luckier still, a few of the referees in the tent at the time happened to be doctors. Everyone went into action – someone calling for an ambulance that was on-site, others starting CPR. When the emergency medical technicians (EMTs) arrived, they used an automated external defibrillator (AED) to shock Gary’s heart.

They shocked him several times in the tent. And several more on the short ride to the hospital.

***

Gary had a blocked left anterior descending artery, what some call the “widow maker” because the survival rate is so low.

Doctors were unable to do angioplasty or place a stent in the blocked artery due to the location of the blockage. He spent a couple of weeks in the hospital, then returned home.

After a few months of cardiac rehabilitation, doctors discovered that Gary had an abnormal heartbeat and implanted a defibrillator. It was the first of six he’s had since then – nearly 20 years ago.

***

In his youth, Gary was in great physical condition. He was a good enough athlete to play college, semi-pro and even a little professional football.

But as he got married, had kids and worked as a terminal manager for a courier service, his lifestyle changed. He coached Little League teams, led Indian Guide tribes and played golf, yet didn’t prioritize exercising. He also allowed fast food to become prominent in his diet.

By age 45, he weighed 350 pounds, and his triglycerides level topped 800 mg/dL (normal is less than 150).

While Gary’s doctor encouraged him to lose weight, he was not prescribed any medication. He hoped that helping with his kids’ sports teams could keep him active enough.

His heart attack changed everything.

Over the next 18 months, Gary cut out fast food, ate more vegetables and limited the amount of fats and red meat he ate. He also monitored his portion sizes. As a result, he lost 150 pounds, most of which he’s kept off.

“I basically lost another person,” Gary said. “I was totally scared, so I ate the right things.”

***

Gary’s heart health has remained relatively stable, thanks largely to the implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD).

“When I was real heavy, it went off often,” Gary said. “Now, it’s one or two times a year, usually if I’ve been out in the heat too long or didn’t drink enough water.”

Even so, there have been some challenges.

“While the ICD does go off at times, I am so grateful that it allows me to be alive with my wife, sons and grandchildren,” Gary said.

Gary’s heart also withstood the stress of several other medical conditions, including two Achilles’ tendon repairs, two ablations to treat arrhythmia, blood clots, Valley Fever and a total of seven hip replacements.

Following his heart attack, he continued to coach Little League baseball, play golf and garden.

“I’m not going to go out and play football or work in the yard for five hours, but I do most everything else,” Gary said.

Gary marvels at the fact that he was able to work another 20 years after surviving such a significant heart attack.

“The heart is amazing,” he said.

Gary retired two years ago at age 63, due to complications with his hips, which took a beating from years of playing football. He and his wife Barbara are now both retired. They’ve moved to Phoenix and enjoy taking short trips and spending time with their three grandchildren.

Gary does some moderate walking, though his hips make exercise difficult. He focuses maintaining a heart-healthy diet and keeping his weight down.

***

A year ago, Gary decided it was time to give back to the American Heart Association, the nation’s oldest and largest voluntary organization focused on fighting heart disease, the No. 1 killer of Americans. The organization has been pioneering advancements in cardiovascular care for decades, and annually funds more research into the heart than any entity outside the federal government.

Gary now volunteers two to three days a week in Tempe, Ariz. On Mondays, he works in the front office, preparing spreadsheets or sometimes just answering the phones.

Once or twice a week, he gives tours to children at the Halle Heart Children’s Museum.

“I love doing something for an organization that does so much for people who’ve had heart attacks and strokes,” Gary said.

***

Do you know a “Story from the Heart” we should tell? 

Send an email to stories@heart.org that’s as brief or as detailed as you’d like.

Previous “Stories from the Heart” include:

While boy awaits transplant to beat incredibly rare condition, family accepts ‘new normal’

She ran a 5K and had cardiac arrest the same morning; now she’s an EMT, AHA volunteer

Photos courtesy of Gary Stover

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