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When his kids were little, Gary Barclay and his wife, Donna, would pack the family up each summer and head up to Mission Lake, Minnesota, just outside of Brainerd, Minnesota. They'd throw in their lines and fish for days.
"We really enjoy bass fishing, but we'll go after northerns and walleyes — whatever's biting," says the 65-year-old Austin, Minnesota, resident.
The kids are grown now, starting families of their own, but the Barclays still head north to fish every summer, picking a new lake to explore each year. With a line in the water, Gary likes to spend time with what he calls the "three F's": faith, family and friends.
The three F's help Gary relax.
"I'm one of these guys that worries a lot. I worry about family," he says.
The past few years have seen several stressful changes upend Gary's life. After he retired in 2013, he spent as much time with his parents as possible. However, the death of his mother in 2016 and his father in 2018 hit Gary hard.
On a balmy day in late July 2018, a month after his father died, Gary felt a sharp pain in his chest. He was home and, having just finished lunch, wrote the pain off as indigestion. The pain was short-lived, so Gary went about his day and didn't give it another thought.
Accessible emergency medicine
In the Emergency Department, staff confirmed Gary was experiencing a heart attack. More specifically, he was having a non-ST elevation myocardial infarction, where plaque buildup in his left anterior descending artery had ruptured, causing a blood clot that was blocking blood flow to the heart.
Factors at play
Gary says he'd long anticipated that he might have heart trouble. Both his parents had bypass surgeries in their 60s, but Gary had been watching his weight, exercising and trying to eat a healthy diet. He lost about 55 pounds from his top weight in 2001, but was still overweight.
"I thought someday this might happen, but I thought it would be in my later 60s or early 70s," says Gary.
Gary had other risk factors that are common among those who suffer a heart attack, including high cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes. Though his weight loss didn't prevent the heart attack, his commitment to improved diet and exercise would prove critical to his success after the heart attack.
After determining that he was having a heart attack, the team in Austin quickly transferred Gary to Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. There he underwent an angioplasty and coronary stent placement. A coronary stent is a small wire mesh tube that holds an artery open and decreases the chance of the artery narrowing again. During a coronary angioplasty, a long thin tube is inserted in an artery in the groin or arm, and threaded through blood vessels to the heart. Stents are deployed through the catheter. Most stents are coated with a medication to help keep the artery open. This treatment is common for patients similar to Gary who are experiencing heart attacks and chest pain caused by reduced blood flow, explains Lawrence Keenan, M.D., a cardiologist at Mayo Clinic Health System in Albert Lea and Austin.
"This is a very common procedure with a quicker recovery time compared to coronary artery bypass surgery," says Dr. Keenan. "If he would have gone for open-heart surgery, the hospitalization would usually be between four to seven days. Also, the risks for complications with an angioplasty and stent placement are relatively low."
Gary was awake for the procedure and able to watch on a monitor as doctors threaded the catheter into a vein in his right arm and up to the central artery beneath his heart. Gary couldn't feel anything, but remembers the team explaining the process as they went and answering his questions about what he was seeing.
While in the recovery room, J. Wells Askew, M.D., his Mayo Clinic cardiologist, stopped to check on Gary.
"There are visitors waiting for you," Gary recalls Dr. Askew saying. Gary knew who it had to be: Donna and their children, Nicole and Erik. "After hearing that, I couldn't get to my room and see them soon enough."
Gary was able to go home the next day and later followed up with Dr. Keenan in Austin.
Walking into a healthier future
Since his heart attack and procedure in 2018, Gary has made a concentrated effort to address the risk factors that led to his heart attack. He eats healthier now than before his heart attack.
"A person doesn't realize how often he gets a hamburger or eats out at fast food until he stops going," says Gary.
Other small adjustments have been key: baking or broiling meat instead of frying in oils, having a side salad instead of fries and taking a daily walk.
His follow-up care also includes monitoring on another artery that has some blockage.
"That's what lit the fire under my feet to lose weight and straighten out my diet," says Gary. "Knowing it could happen again motivates me. Now I feel uncomfortable if I don't exercise at least three times a week."
For the past 18 months, Gary would walk or swim at the local YMCA five or six days per week. However, since the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily closed the Y, Gary has changed his workout routine to focus on walking, biking and "mowing my lawn a few more times than needed."
His hard work is paying off. In the year following his heart attack, Gary has lost about 70 pounds. As the weight has come off and Gary's health has improved, he gets a cheery congratulation from Dr. Keenen with each visit.
"Dr. Keenan always tells me, 'You're a great example for what a person with coronary artery disease should be doing,'" he says.
"He looks great in person and on paper," says Dr. Keenan.
Gary is no longer diabetic, his lipid profile has improved drastically and even his low-density lipoprotein, or LDL cholesterol ― the "bad" cholesterol ― has gone down.
"There is no complete cure for coronary artery disease," says Dr. Keenan. "That's why lifestyle modification is so important. All of the things that Gary has done would significantly decrease his chances of having another coronary artery event."
Gary is grateful for the rapid response and care of the Mayo Clinic team.
"I can't say enough about Dr. Keenan and his staff," says Gary. "As for the care at Saint Marys Hospital — what else can you say, but it was just phenomenal. I thank Dr. Askew and his team that did the surgery, the emergency team in Austin and Dr. Keenan. They all worked together to make sure I was going to make it out OK."
More good to come
Since his heart attack, Gary became a grandfather.
"If I'd known grandkids were this much fun, I would have skipped kids and gone right to grandchildren," he says with a chuckle.
He hasn't been able to visit his grandchildren as often as before due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I'm in a higher risk category for the virus," says Gary. "I just look into my grandchildren faces' and decided it is not worth the risk of me getting sick. My family remains my priority, so right now that means I'm staying at home and, by choice, not participating in recreational or social activities like I did before COVID-19. So far, I'm OK with that."
Long term, Gary is looking forward to watching his grandchildren grow up. "I want to see them graduate," he says. "And — Lord willing — see them get married."
And when they're old enough, he'll definitely take them fishing.
Read more about heart health:
- Get 5 heart-healthy tips.
- Use a checklist to find out if you have a healthy heart.
- Find out what you need to know about COVID-19 and heart disease.
- Know your risk factors for developing high blood pressure and steps to lower your risks of this silent killer.