Russ L. has been living a perfectly normal, happy life. He’s a business owner, married to his high school sweetheart for 10 years, and father to three young children in small town Willow Spring, North Carolina.
At 32 years old, Russ says his overall medical history was pretty uneventful. He never smoked, maintained a healthy weight, took his hypertension medication, and had lab work done at his annual checkups. “I never really had any kind of heart issues other than maybe borderline cholesterol levels,” says Russ. His low-density lipoprotein (LDL) typically hovered around 100 mg/dL.
So, when he started having pain in his chest one January 2022 morning, he assumed it was just some heartburn. He was experiencing some tingling in the pinky and ring fingers of both hands, and it started going up and down his arms. Russ decided to lay down to see if it would stop. “I probably wouldn’t have done anything about it had I not just lost my best friend from a heart attack,” he explains.
Russ and his wife decided to call an ambulance, and he was taken to WakeMed Hospital in Raleigh, North Carolina. “I can’t tell you how many times I heard, ‘you’re too young to be here,’” he says. The doctors at the hospital thought it could be angina but decided to send him to the catheterization lab just in case.
“Okay, but can you tell me why?”
That’s when they found it – a 100% blockage in Russ’ left anterior descending artery (LAD). When it’s blocked, it causes the “widow-maker” heart attack.
Everyone continued telling Russ he was simply too young to be there. His response was, “Okay, but can you tell me why?”
A family friend happened to email Russ an article about Lipoprotein(a), or Lp(a). At first, Russ didn’t know if it was a trustworthy article, but a bit more searching led him to the Family Heart Foundation. “When I found that and started reading, I was like, this has to be it,” says Russ. He talked to his doctors about having his levels checked. Sure enough, his Lp(a) measured 203 nmol/L (levels greater than 125 nmol/L puts you at increased risk of heart attack and stroke).
“What could I do about it?”
“I was happy to know what caused my heart attack,” explains Russ, “but what could I do about it?” He has another 90% blockage in his right coronary artery, so he wasn’t out of the woods just yet. He again turned to the Family Heart Foundation website. Using their Find a Specialist search engine, Russ found Dr. William Cromwell, a clinical lipidologist in Raleigh.
Under Dr. Cromwell’s guidance, Russ takes a statin and plans on adding a PCSK9 inhibitor soon. “His goal is to get my LDL as low as possible,” he explains. Since there are currently very limited treatment options for elevated Lipoprotein(a) (with clinical trials underway), one way to treat this condition is by reducing any and all other risk factors, including lowering LDL. He’s also chosen to pursue a plant-based diet, which has given him opportunities to spread the word about this very common condition. “I was in a sandwich shop and ordered a wheat sub with just vegetables, no mayonnaise, no cheese. The people in the restaurant were kind of drilling me like, are you allergic to meat? I said no, I had a heart attack a couple weeks ago and everybody in line was like, what?”
Russ’ wife has also had her Lipoprotein(a) levels tested, and they plan on having their children tested when they’re older.
“It can happen to anybody.”
“I feel good today,” says Russ, “I do cardiac rehab three days a week. They get me on the treadmill, and I joke with everyone that I’ve broken all the records there because everyone’s got me beat by a few decades.”
Russ says he’s glad to have an explanation for his heart attack. He wants to make sure other people know about elevated Lipoprotein(a) because as he puts it, “One in five people have it, so it can happen to anybody.”