published Sunday, November 27th, 2011

Kennedy: Runners can have coronary attacks

For 33 years, Rick Bonine has kept a runner's log, carefully recording dates and distances.

Last year, the 56-year-old Chattanooga welding-equipment salesman reached a lifetime total of 24,901 miles, a distance equal to the circumference of the Earth.

Imagine his surprise, then, when a simple heart scan in October at the Chattanooga Heart Institute at Memorial Hospital helped determine that Bonine had a 95 percent chance of dropping dead.

Bonine said his doctor telephoned at 9 o'clock one night and told him to immediately shelve his running shoes and schedule an arteriogram, a heart imaging test.

"At first, I was in denial," Bonine said. "I had no symptoms whatsoever. ... I'd never had chest pain or shortness of breath."

But his doctor persuaded Bonine that an 80 percent blockage of one of his main heart arteries -- the one ominously called the widowmaker -- could end his life in a flash within two years.

During this holiday weekend, Bonine, who is recovering from triple bypass heart surgery, is on a mission to encourage even people who consider themselves physically fit to attend to their heart health.

"Everybody should have one of these," Bonine said of the $99 Coronary Calcium Scoring test that he believes saved his life.

Bonine, a marathon runner and triathlete, said he got a checkup from his primary-care doctor in September at the urging of his fiancée, Pam Smith, a nurse.

"My running was never about extending life," he said. "I always knew that I could get run over by a truck."

The truck, in this case, turned out to be a family history of heart disease that not even a marathoner at peak fitness could outrun.

Although his pulse was distance-runner slow -- around 45 beats per minute -- and his EKG was clean, Bonine had slightly elevated cholesterol and several close relatives with heart disease.

Bonine said his grandfather died mowing grass, his father died during heart surgery and a brother had a triple-bypass heart surgery in his mid-50s.

Bonine decided to be safe and have the Coronary Calcium Scoring test at Memorial, a five-minute procedure that typically is not covered by health insurance, according to hospital staff. The test revealed a potentially deadly buildup of calcium in a coronary artery that set Bonine on a path to heart surgery.

Because he had run every day for decades, doctors said, his body strengthened alternative pathways around his heart -- called collateral veins -- to keep the blood flowing.

Now, with three new arteries transplanted from other parts of his body, Bonine is on the mend and says he hopes to be back at his running within a couple of months.

He even thinks he might be a better runner than ever.

"I'm calling my heart supercharged," he said, smiling and tapping his chest with a fist. "I've got brand new pipes."

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/MarkKennedyTFP or on Twitter @TFPCOLUMNIST.

about Mark Kennedy...

Mark Kennedy is a Times Free Press columnist and editor. He writes the "LIfe Stories" human interest column for the City section and the "Family Life" column for the Life section. He also writes an automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for ...

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