By Bill Plock
Meet Walt Bleser, luckily you can. His 6 month old child, his wife and family are really lucky he is alive. Walt is 40 years old and recently had emergency surgery to unblock his left anterior descending artery that was 100% blocked. Typically he would’ve died from a “Widow Maker” heart attack that occurs with this type of blockage that is almost always fatal.
As we know from the recent story of former professional cyclists, 40 year old Nicolas Portal (Story HERE) or the tragic loss of Andy Balika last year in Steamboat, (Story HERE) even the most fit athletes can have a heart attack at early ages with symptoms that can often be “explained” by training fatigue. But in Walt’s case, he had the data to prove he was having an issue, but he didn’t recognize it until it was almost too late.
Because Walt is a very accomplished, fit cyclists and athlete, he ignored signs that something was wrong. It’s estimated that his blockage began up to three years ago. With the heavy physical demands typical of endurance athletes, his heart built a network of collateral arteries around the blockage that kept him alive—and thinking the symptoms he felt were due to other things.
Walt “explained away” the symptoms like chronic fatigue, feeling sluggish, intermittent chest pain, weirdly low heart rates and other signs of not feeling fit. He blamed the stress of work or anxiety of becoming a new father, or that his heart rate strap was too tight or that he had lifted something too heavy and that was causing the weird pain in his chest.
In this photo at the base of Lookout Mountain in June of 2019 during Lookout Week with Megan Hottman, Walt ascended Lookout with at least an 80% blockage. Can you imagine? Walt said he felt, “out of shape” on this ride but kept thinking of other reasons why.
Like many endurance athletes, Walt pays attention to his heart rate. Walt is a “type A” athlete who pays attention to EVERYTHING, especially his heart rate. He is a Strava fanatic and examines each and every activity. He started to notice his heart rate would not go up compared to his perceived effort. His speeds and paces began to drop. A three mile run felt like a marathon and a ride up Lookout felt like his ascent up Haleakala.
The data was there, but he ignored it. He kept pushing and finally with the urging of his wife and a couple of friends with medical backgrounds, he sought medical advice.
But because he was in such good shape (outwardly) his first stop at an urgent care facility diagnosed his chest pain to some strained rib muscles because the EKG looked normal. As a fit, relatively young athlete, like many, he doesn’t see a doctor regularly and with constraints of insurance it wasn’t easy to keep looking for answers and get approval for more tests. But he persisted and made his way to well-known cardiologist, Dr Jerry Miklin at Lutheran Medical Center.
Dr. Miklin seemed a bit stumped at first too. Luckily he pushed around the insurance denials to set up an echo cardiogram and exploratory angiogram/surgery within 24 hours of Walt walking into his office. During the angiogram he found a 100% blockage of his LAD / Widow Maker Artery, and after three hours of trying, was able to insert a very long stent of almost 2” which saved his life.
Reflecting now, Walt is sure that buried deep in his Garmin/Strava data are early signs of heart distress. He is convinced there is a way to extrapolate that critical kind data to prevent what happened to him. Walt is pursuing conversations with heart rate monitor companies and companies like Strava to begin looking more closely at data that might suggest an anomaly not related to typical training fatigue.
We will be checking back with Walt as he finishes cardiac rehab and offering the full story in an upcoming podcast. In the meantime, get a CT scan for $150 or so, it might save the engine that pedals you up Lookout. Cyclists eagerly spend thousands of dollars to shave a few watts of effort, so a $150 seems like a no-brainer to save your life.