Dan Scherrer, Heart Bypass Surgery

Thin, conscious of his diet and an avid exerciser, Dan Scherrer was not your classic candidate for a heart attack.

Yet during the 2005 Memorial Day weekend, when the then 56-year-old Scherrer was with his family at their cottage on Corey Lake near Three Rivers, the first in a series of tell-tale chest pains hit like a bolt from the blue.

"I was the first one up and was reading a magazine and drinking coffee," said Scherrer, a research engineer for a steel company in Middletown, Ohio. "It was like the pain you feel after someone has hit you in the chest -- not the hit itself but the pain afterwards.

"I had been feeling fine before that and I quickly dismissed the pain as a reaction to the long drive from Ohio and from being tired. I did not think about a heart attack at all."

If there was initial denial it was based at least partially on the reality of his lifestyle. Scherrer said he did take medications to lower his cholesterol, but he didn't smoke and had exercised at least three times a week at the gym for the previous 15 years, rode a bicycle, ran and water-skied.

"He hardly ever sits down," said his wife, Adriane.

And in the months preceding the chest pain he noticed no decrease in endurance or shortness of breath.

Fifteen minutes after the first attack of pain, however, it returned. "It was severe enough to knock me to my knees," he said. "I started thinking that this may not have been from the trip but that something else was going on. Still, I decided to live in denial a little longer."

Adriane was not at home at the time, but daughter-in-law Mandy walked in when he had gone to his knees and grew concerned. A few minutes later a third episode triggered the most severe and longest-lasting pain.

"I asked my son to go with me to the store to get some aspirin," Scherrer said. "I felt fine by then and the pain went away. I took an aspirin and I was feeling absolutely normal again."

Sons Bryan, 30, and Aaron, 28, suggested that their father visit the Three Rivers Hospital emergency room, but Scherrer declined. Instead, they all got in the car for a shopping trip.

"They didn't tell me they intended to take me to the ER," he said. "When we were at Meijers I agreed that I would go to the hospital but only if I had more pain."

The family shopped and while walking to the car the pain returned, not as severe as before, but enough to convince Scherrer to keep his part of the bargain.

"When you walk into the emergency room and tell them you are having chest pain you go right to the head of the list," Scherrer said. "They were fabulous.

"I did everything I could to talk them out of keeping me there. The last thing I wanted was to be stuck here with a heart attack. But the doctor was very persuasive. He reassured me that the people at Borgess (Medical Center), where they wanted to send me, were very skilled."

Scherrer was driven by ambulance to Borgess where Dr. Robert LaPenna, a cardiologist with the Borgess Cardiology Group, did an angiogram to examine Scherrer's heart arteries. "He found so many blockages in so many places that a stent was not an option," Scherrer said.

One artery, commonly known as the "widow-maker," was 97 percent blocked.

Blood tests confirmed that he had had a heart attack.

A few days later Dr. George Mack bypassed five of Scherrer's heart arteries and Scherrer was soon on his way to a quick and successful recovery.

While Scherrer was not a typical candidate for a heart attack, he does have a family history of heart disease, a powerful predictor of potential heart problems. The fact that he is thin, does not smoke, eats a fairly healthy diet and exercised for so many years undoubtedly had a profound impact on his outcome.

"Dr. LaPenna told me that if I hadn't had so many ancillary arteries from the exercise that I likely would not have survived," he said.

LaPenna said that being in shape has advantages in the battle against heart disease. There is, however, a down side: "When people are in excellent shape it may give them a sense of invulnerability," he said. "They can't believe, even when they have typical symptoms, that they could be having a heart attack."

That's no reason not to be in shape, however. "Being in shape gives you a better tolerance if you do have a heart attack by reducing the risk of further harm," he said.

LaPenna uses an airplane with four engines as an example. If all four engines are in good working, but one loses power there are still three good engines to keep the plane flying.

Adriane said her husband may not have noticed physical changes prior to the heart attack, but that she saw a few subtle signs. One time a few months earlier, his lips were blue, she said. And another time he complained of shortness of breath after exertion not related to his exercise regimen.

Scherrer was in Borgess for a week after the surgery and started walking as soon as he was allowed. "The nurses described Dan as an inspirational walker," Adriane said. "In fact at one point they had to tell him not to walk so much."

Adriane had praise for Dr. LaPenna, nurses and other medical professionals at the hospital. Every time she couldn't take any more stress, she said, someone was there with a smile, telling her that Dan would be OK.

"The experience at Borgess couldn't have been better," Dan said. "The nursing support was amazing."

Dan said that when he first accepted the fact that he'd had a heart attack, he wanted to go back to Ohio and a Cincinnati hospital with a good reputation for cardiac care. As he looks back on his experience, however, he thinks he could not have done any better anywhere than at Borgess.

Dan returned to work about two months after surgery and continued with his daily walks of 3 to 5 miles a day. He now walks and runs, swims and rides his bicycle.

On Aug. 19, he and his sons competed in a triathlon that had a .93-mile swim, a 24.8-mile bike ride and a 6.2-mile run.

"My goal was to complete it under five hours since that's when they take the clock down," he said. "I far exceeded my expectations with a time 3 hours and 31 minutes. The whole family was there to greet me at the finish line.

"My thanks to everyone at Borgess who helped to make this possible!"

Adriane said that Dan's brother Gary, who shares the family history of heart disease, is planning to participate in the triathlon with Dan as are Scherrer's sons Bryan and Aaron.

Dan has modified his diet and eats a small meal every three hours to help lower his cholesterol, although he remains on cholesterol-lowering medications. His blood cholesterol is now 165 mg/dcl.

On Memorial Day 2006, one year after his heart attack, Dan jumped out of an airplane from 10,000 feet, free-falling for thousands of feet before the parachute was opened.

"Dr. LaPenna said people can't control their family history so we might as well enjoy life," Adriane said. "I knew Dan had been thinking about a parachute jump, so I got him a gift of one at the Goshen jump club."

Dan opted for a tandem jump, meaning that he was attached to a professional jumper and that he could jump from 10,000 feet -- much higher than a solo jump for a beginner.

"As I waited at the door of the plane it was pure terror," he said. "My mind and body both were telling me that this was a really stupid idea.

"But once we jumped it was pure adrenalin and excitement. We dropped through a cloud and when that shoot opened it was total tranquility.

"I wasn't challenging death or anything like that. It was just something I wanted to do."

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