The Nation's Health + Niacin

Surviving a widow maker

Gwen came to me 5 years ago. In her late 60s, she'd been having feelings of chest pressure for the past 4 weeks with small physical efforts, such as climbing a flight of stairs or lifting her grandchildren.

She sat in my office, heaving small sobs, accompanied by her daughter.

Gwen had already undergone a heart catheterization at a hospital near home by a cardiologist who I knew to be honest and competent. She'd been told that she had a 90% stenosis ("blockage") of her proximal left anterior descending (LAD) coronary artery. He called it a "widow maker," since closure of the artery at this point can be fatal within minutes. He advised bypass surgery as soon as possible. Though a stent could be placed at this location, he felt that its proximity to the left main stem (i.e., the "trunk" that divides into the LAD and circumflex arteries) might be jeopardized by expanding a stent in this bulky plaque, what I felt was a reasonable concern.

I reviewed the images that she brought with her. Yes, indeed: a widow maker. The portion of the left ventricle (heart muscle) fed by the LAD was also impaired ("hypokinetic"), reflecting reduced flow through the artery.

I advised Gwen that her first cardiologist's advice was sound: This was a potentially dangerous and severe condition. Either a bypass or stent should be performed near-future, the less delay the better.

But Gwen and her daughter would have no talk of any more procedures. She'd come to me because she heard about the (then rudimentary) effort I'd been making at reversing coronary plaque. "I admire your commitment, Gwen, but I am concerned that there may not be sufficient time to implement a program of prevention or reversal. Prevention is very powerful, but very slow. When symptoms like yours are active, also, it can mean that we won't have full control over the plaque causing the symptoms. This risks closure of the vessel, since flow characteristics in the plaque are abnormal. I think that you should go through a stent or bypass. We can then start your prevention/reversal program once we know you're safe."

Gwen would still have none of it. I asked her to return in a few days after thinking it over. In the meantime, we drew her lipoprotein blood samples while she added fish oil, l-arginine (back then I used a lot of l-arginine for its endothelial health effects), and began the Track Your Plaque diet a la 2004. This was in addition to the aspirin, beta blocker, and statin prescribed by the first cardiologist.

Several days later, Gwen and her daughter returned, as committed as ever to not having a procedure and proceeding with our prevention/reversal efforts.

So off we went. I was nervous about Gwen's safety, but she had clearly made her mind made up. Gwen's lipoprotein analysis revealed a severe small LDL pattern along with markers for prediabetes (high insulin, high blood glucose, hypertension, along with the loose tummy of visceral fat). So I counseled her intensively in diet and added niacin.

Within 2 weeks, Gwen no longer had chest pain. Whether this was due to her efforts or to some resolution of an intraplaque phenomenon (e.g., resorption of internal plaque hemorrhage), I don't know. But her symptoms did not return.

As the program evolved, we added the new strategies along the way--vitamin D supplementation; elimination of all wheat along with other changes in diet; iodine and thyroid normalization; as well as discontinuing l-arginine after the initial two years. She also got rid of the statin drug after losing around 20 lbs on the diet.

It's now been six years with her "widow maker" and Gwen has been fine: no recurrence of her symptoms, all stress tests performed have been normal, reflecting normal blood flow in her coronary arteries.

Should ALL people with symptomatic widow makers undergo such an effort and avoid procedures? No, not yet. Prevention and reversal efforts are indeed powerful, but slow. Some people just may not have sufficient time to accomplish what Gwen did. The fact that Gwen showed evidence for reduced flow in the LAD worried me in particular. There is no question that mortality benefits for stenting or bypass of this location are not as large as previously thought (see here, for instance), but each case needs to be viewed individually, factoring in flow characteristics in the artery, appearance of "stability" or "instability" of the plaque itself, not to mention commitment of the person.

But it can be done.

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