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His heart was in the right place

Jeff ColkerJeff Colker did not have a heart attack. And at first, he had no idea why. Once the lifelong athlete learned he had an urgent need for quadruple bypass surgery, he realized he could have died at any moment. Ultimately, he decided it was his healthy lifestyle that kept him out of more serious trouble. That and timely intervention at Community Hospital.

The 67-year-old doesn’t fit the stereotype of a heart attack candidate. The eight-time veteran of the Big Sur International Marathon® has exercised nearly every day of his life. He hikes and snow skis. He avoids fats and sugar, never smoked, and enjoys just enough red wine to benefit his health. His adult weight is steady at about 150 pounds.

But something wasn’t right. He began getting nagging signs while on the treadmill at home in Bend, Oregon, where he moved about 20 years ago after two decades on the Monterey Peninsula.

“I was running on a treadmill and began to experience shortness of breath and a burning sensation that began in my left shoulder and traveled across my chest to my right shoulder,” he says. “My legs felt like they had weights around them. I felt nauseous and broke out in a cold sweat. But I worked through it.”

He chalked up his symptoms to continued convalescence after shoulder surgery and dismissed them for months, until his regular four miles a day on the treadmill had declined to a quarter-mile.

Colker’s doctor did an angiogram, threading a catheter to the coronary arteries and heart for a look at how his blood was flowing. The procedure revealed four arteries so obstructed by calcium that he was not a candidate for angioplasty or stents to clear the blockages; his only option was open-heart bypass surgery.

“As an athlete,” says Jeff, “I had a tendency to be in denial. Now I’ve learned you can be in the best shape and do all the right things, and genetics will still catch up and bite you. But because of my lifestyle, it took a lot longer to get me.”

Colker respects the medical center in Bend, but was well acquainted with the Monterey Peninsula medical community, particularly Community Hospital, where his two daughters and his granddaughter were born.

“When it becomes a life-or-death situation, you want to go where you will be most comfortable,” he says. That, he decided after talking to people here, was Community Hospital

He made the decision on a Tuesday and drove from Bend to Monterey the next day. On Thursday, he met with cardiac surgeons Dr. Gregory Spowart and Dr. Vincent Gaudiani.

“All the doctors came out to meet with Jeff,” says his partner Diana Curran. “There was such a sense of community and urgency. This gave us a truly comforting feeling. I thought, this team is going to take care of him. And they did.”

Gaudiani reviewed Colker’s angiogram. Three arteries were 60-, 70-, and 80-percent blocked, respectively.

“The worst,” Colker says, “was what they call a ‘widow maker.’ It was 99-percent plugged. I said, ‘When do we operate?’ He said, ‘Tomorrow at 6 a.m.’ ”

Spowart performed the bypass and also repaired a leaky heart valve, his specialty. Six days later, Colker left the hospital and began cardiac rehabilitation in Community Hospital’s Cardiopulmonary Wellness Program, participating in a 30-minute class on health and wellness, followed by an hour of exercise.

Four weeks after surgery, he went hiking in Carmel Valley. He has stopped taking all medication except statins for cholesterol, an ACE inhibitor to protect his heart, baby aspirin to minimize clotting, and his regular vitamins. He also has a daily glass of merlot.

Colker is back on his motorcycle, flying his plane, and has hit the slopes. And he’s in training for his next marathon.

“The themes that come out of this experience for me are caring, compassion, and exceptional medicine,” Colker says. ”Community Hospital has a small-town feel with big-city medicine.”

The surgeons of Tyler Heart Institute have performed more than 2,000 open-heart surgeries since the program began in 2006. Nearly 25 percent of the patients have traveled from out of the area for the surgery.