Robert Epps was working the soundboard at his local church one Sunday morning when he walked up the stairs to the office. This simple activity left the 31-year-old with a terrible pain in his chest that made it hard to breathe.
“It felt like someone had stabbed me with a knife and was twisting it,” he said.
He also felt pain in his jaw, and his left arm felt limp. Robert wasn’t sure what was happening.
A First Class Petty Officer in the U.S. Coast Guard at the time, Robert was taken to the base medical facility on Governor’s Island in New York.
An EKG found nothing out of the ordinary. Doctors diagnosed him with intense gas, gave him medication to relieve the symptoms and sent him home. It would take several years to realize what they missed
When he was a teenager, Robert underwent a routine physical required to play team sports. Doctors discovered a heart murmur. They told his mom, but she didn’t tell him. However, she refused to allow him to play on a team because of it.
He learned about the heart murmur when he joined the Coast Guard at age 18. He also was told it was benign.
He didn’t think much about his heart until that incident at the church. After that, he didn’t think about it for four more years.
During a check-up, a nurse practitioner detected severe aortic regurgitation through the sound radiating into the artery in his neck. She suggested Robert consult with a cardiologist, but he put it off because he was headed out on a training mission.
By the time he saw the cardiologist, Robert was feeling an intense pressure in his heart. He also noticed that he’d been getting more tired when doing intense physical exertion, and he felt like he could hear his heart beating loudly when he laid down to rest.
Tests uncovered an aortic aneurysm, a leaky aortic valve and a dilated left ventricle. As a result, his heart had become so enlarged that it was pressing up against his ribs.
“It felt like a balloon was expanding through my ribs,” Robert said. “It was so much pressure, it was twisting my upper body.”
Days later, Robert underwent a complex open-heart surgery.
“I didn’t realize the severity of it when I was first admitted to the hospital until I got up to brush my teeth and the nurse came flying in to tell me to get back into bed immediately,” he said.
Robert’s recovery included cardiac rehabilitation and lifestyle modifications, such as eliminating contact sports and watching his intake of vitamin K, which can interfere with blood thinning medications. He didn’t have to make many dietary changes because he already ate a heart-healthy diet.
A few years later, Robert underwent another operation. Two years after that came another operation. That’s also when he got serious about speaking about heart issues and raising awareness about aortic disease and cardiovascular health through his foundation, the National Organization for Aortic Awareness.
Robert, who now lives in Chesapeake, Va., published a book about the aorta called “The Human Aorta: Your Super Highway of Life,” with assistance from Baylor College of Medicine. He conducts community events, gives presentations about the aorta and heart, sharing his own story and offers free screenings for veterans with cardiovascular disease.
“I call diseases of the aorta ‘smooth criminals’ because they can mimic other problems and go undetected,” Robert said. “Following up with your doctor is really important.”
Robert also volunteers with the American Heart Association, sharing his story and urging men in particular to be more health conscious.
“I tell other men that it’s not just about you. You have to think about all the people who depend on you too,” he said. “Before all this happened, I never liked going to the doctor, but now you don’t have to tell me twice. I go in ready to grill the doctor with questions and understand what’s going on with me.”
Photos courtesy of Robert Epps
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