“They say shoveling is one of the worst things you can do (for a heart attack). Don’t be afraid to ask for help and to take breaks, even if it’s not a lot of snow.”
A snowfall is a great opportunity to get outside for exercise and some fresh air. Just make sure you’re in the right shape to undertake winter activities.
Just ask Terry Weller.
The 67-year-old was shoveling a few inches of freshly-fallen snow one winter morning when he began to experience symptoms that he knew needed attention.
“A regular day”
February 18, 2018: “This was just a regular day for me,” recalls the 67-year-old grandfather of four from Manchester, Pa.
While his girlfriend, Patricia, was curled up inside her Pittston home watching TV, Terry went outside to clear a few inches of freshly fallen snow from her sidewalk and driveway. Everything was normal, he says, until he went back inside the house.
“As soon as I went inside, I started not feeling well,” recalls Terry, “like maybe I was having acid reflux, or my sugar was low. I tried to warm up and rest for a bit, but it wasn’t working. I told Patricia, ‘I think I’m having a heart attack,’ and she called the ambulance.”
Terry, who lives in Manchester, Pa. (outside of York), was transported to Geisinger Wyoming Valley Medical Center. Although he doesn’t recall much of what happened next, as soon as Terry arrived at the emergency room, he was treated for a heart attack. Diagnostic tests revealed he had severe blockages in several of his heart’s arteries.
Soon after, more tests revealed that Terry had double pneumonia, too. As soon as he was stable, his care team scheduled a quadruple bypass.
“Terry initially arrived at the ER with acute coronary syndrome, otherwise known as ACS. We put a stent in the culprit blocked vessels in his heart. However, Terry had additional blockages and his mitral valve was leaking. He needed to have emergency quadruple bypass surgery, as well as a procedure to repair his mitral valve,” says Dr. Deepak Singh, the cardiothoracic surgeon who performed Terry’s heart surgery and chair of Cardiac Surgery at Geisinger Wyoming Valley Medical Center.
“I was fortunate enough to have Dr. Singh (perform my surgery) — he’s the best surgeon,” Terry says. “They did a quadruple bypass. In one artery, I had a 100% blockage, with 85% (blockage) in the other three.”
Heart bypass surgery involves taking a healthy vein from another part of the body, typically the leg, and connecting it to the heart to replace blocked arteries and redirect blood flow. A person’s risk for having a heart attack goes up with each blocked artery —in Terry’s case, four of his heart’s arteries were severely or completely blocked.
Terry’s heart also had a mitral valve regurgitation, which caused the blood in his heart to leak backward every time the left ventricle contracts. During his heart bypass surgery, his leaking mitral valve was also repaired.
After his bypass surgery, Terry needed additional procedures to help his heart become healthy again. A week later, a pacemaker was installed to regulate his heart’s natural rhythm — a common occurrence after heart valve surgery.
Terry’s procedures led to a long but successful recovery.
“Recovery from heart surgery is different for everyone. Fortunately, with the support he had, Terry has recovered well,” explains Dr. Singh.
Dr. Singh says, “Terry had great coordinated care — many teams worked together to get him well again.”
Shoveling snow: Listen to your body
Shoveling snow can be physically challenging. And cold air can cause your blood vessels to constrict, so your heart works even harder. If you’ve been sedentary or have an existing — or unknown — condition, this strain can be too much.
What increases your risk of a heart attack while shoveling?
- Being age 55 or older
- High blood pressure
- A history of heart attack or other heart issues
- Living an inactive lifestyle
Leading up to his heart attack, the retired Maryland Department of Transportation worker says he was in good health and had no known heart issues.
“I was active, running all over the place, traveling to see my family and taking care of my sister who has Alzheimer’s. I had just had surgery, and they said everything was fine.”
Taking it easy for now
Life is a little slower paced now for Terry, who says he has more restrictions.
“You don’t know anything about a heart attack until you have one. It’s an experience like no other, and no one ever thinks they’re going to have one,” Terry says. “They say shoveling is one of the worst things you can do (for a heart attack).”
Today, Terry watches his diet, limits strenuous activities—and gets plenty of rest. He also partners with a visiting nurse to monitor his heart.
Terry is working hard to regain his strength and increase his energy. He adds excitedly, “I just joined Planet Fitness! I’ll start going there to get my strength back up.”
Terry has some advice for anyone heading out into the elements to shovel in the winter.
“Don’t be afraid to ask for help and to take breaks,” he says. “Even if it’s not a lot of snow.”
Practice safer shoveling this winter
If you have a lot of snow to remove where you live, consider investing in a snowblower. If this isn’t an option for you, here are some tips to help protect your heart during the next snow storm:
- Wear layers to avoid getting too warm
- Take frequent breaks
- Lift less snow at a time
- Shovel while it’s snowing — don’t wait until it’s over
- Avoid eating a large meal before shoveling
- Listen to your body
If you’re not sure whether healthy enough to shovel, talk to your doctor. They can assess your heart health and help you avoid a cardiac incident.