Robert Schade pulls a small illustration from his wallet. Open it up, and there’s the human heart, in full color, with a penciled arrow pointing to one of the four arteries and another pointing to a branch off that artery.
Schade, who’s 60, could duplicate the illustration blindfolded. A year and a half ago, his left anterior descending artery – more dramatically known as the widow-maker artery – was 99 percent blocked. The branch was 100 percent blocked.
Here are the grim facts of that time:
• Schade was 60 pounds overweight.
• He ate ice cream as well cheeseburgers and fries three times a week.
• His exercise consisted of turning the pages of his mystery novels in the evenings while he watched TV.
Today, after a heart catheterization procedure discovered the blockages and opened the arteries, he’s a new man – trim, fit and pain-free.
At 6 feet, Schade weighs in at 169, and, in the last year and a half, he’s run three 5K races and fallen in love with aerobic exercise. And he hasn’t eaten beef in 18 months.
He’s well aware that the blockages could’ve killed him.
He wakes each morning full of gratitude for his new life.
Difficult to diagnose
Schade’s diagnosis didn’t come easily.
In January 2011, he had started feeling mild discomfort in his chest. He “just didn’t feel right,” he says.
He called his doctor, and the nurse sent him to the emergency room.
An electrocardiogram and blood work that day showed nothing negative. The next day, he underwent a stress test and an echocardiogram. Again, nothing negative.
In early February, Schade had the flu. That’s when the pains began. He says he felt like an elephant had plopped down on his chest. Sometimes he thought a hand was squeezing his heart dry. Often, he couldn’t get his breath.
In his former job as a special projects creator for museum exhibits, Schade says any exertion – lifting or walking – could bring on the pain.
“Bob, you’re turning gray,” co-workers said. “Are you having a heart attack?”
The pains sent Schade back to his doctor. Another electrocardiogram showed no problems.
Physicians were baffled. Was it pleurisy? Esophageal spasms? They gave him nitroglycerin for the pain and referred him to a gastroenterologist.
All during that winter and spring, Schade’s “attacks” came and went. The nitroglycerin took the edge off, but the pain always returned.
On May 24, 2011, Schade’s “attacks” started early and continued into the evening. The Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute scheduled him for a cardiac catheterization procedure – a noninvasive imaging test that allows the doctor to “see” your heart at work – the next day.
As the dye flowed through Schade’s veins, the source of his pain – the blockages in the artery and the branch – became obvious. While Schade was still on the table, Sanger cardiologist Richard Shogull inserted a stent with a small balloon through the groin up into the artery and inflated the balloon to enlarge the narrowing in the artery and the branch.
Schade spent one night in the hospital.
About six weeks after the procedure, on July 5, 2011, Schade started cardiac rehab at Carolinas Medical Center-Morrocroft – half-hour workouts three mornings a week, beginning at 6:45 a.m.
By now, he had lost 31 pounds, down to 195, which he attributes to the pain and the bland diet for the suspected gastrointestinal problems.
“Even the warm-up exercises were tough,” he says. “I just wasn’t in shape. It was really hard to get moving.”
At first he walked the treadmill (3 miles an hour at 0 incline) and used the Schwinn Airdyne and the recumbent bikes. Schade was very discouraged. People kept telling him he’d feel better after he worked out.
“I didn’t feel better,” he says. “I felt terrible.”
Looking forward to workouts
By August, however, when he was laid off from his museum job, he was starting to look forward to the workouts. And his weight dropped to 185.
By November, he increased his workout to five days a week and asked if he could start running the treadmill.
“I’m nothing if not stubborn,” says Schade. “Once I start something, I’m going to see it through.”
“He was the most optimistic patient I’ve worked with,” says Renee Messenger, a clinical exercise physiologist at Morrocroft. “He wanted to do all he could to prevent anything from happening again.”
On Feb. 11, 2012, Schade ran in the Cupid’s Cup 5K race, a fundraiser for CMC’s cardiac rehab programs. He ran it in 32 minutes and he finished.
“I felt great,” he says. “I was astounded to be able to complete the whole thing.”
That race was a turning point.
“I felt I could finally put the bad times behind me,” he says. “If I was able to do that, I was on my way to doing anything I wanted to do.”
By April 2012, still unemployed, Schade was looking to cut expenses. He joined the YWCA – open to both men and women – on Park Road.
“He wanted to shake up his workout routine,” says Julianna Canfield, YWCA fitness director. “For Halloween, he’s been wearing this necklace with pumpkins that light up while he rides the spin cycle.
“He just has this great spirit and attitude,” she says.
His daily routine
Schade wakes at 2:30 each morning to prepare for his new job 20 hours a week (4 a.m. to 8 a.m.) at Home Depot in Matthews. He eats Greek yogurt and fruit before work and enjoys a second breakfast of granola afterward.
Three days a week from 10 to 11 a.m., he’s at the YWCA in a Pilates class. Mondays and Thursdays and Saturdays, he’s in spin class for 45 minutes. And he runs at least three miles on three different days. He naps each afternoon and is in bed by 8:30 p.m.
This month, he dropped to 169. His goal weight is 160.
He says his wife, Regina Burke, has been behind him all the way.
Looking back, Schade is aware what happened to him. He ruined his knees running track and cross country at his high school in Trumansburg, N.Y., and mostly gave up exercising after that.
And for years, he says he felt fine. His heart rate was low. His blood pressure was good. And his cholesterol was only slightly elevated.
Then the pains set in.
“That was not a fun experience,” he says. “It made me appreciate anybody who has health problems. It’s a tough thing to deal with. If you can avoid it, that’s great.
“Pain was a great motivator for me,” he says. “It’s easier to try to prevent it than to repeat it.”