With family history of heart disease, Scotia man says coronary calcium scan may have saved his life

Gary Geiger stands in the roadway with his running shoes in Scotia on Sept. 1.
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Gary Geiger stands in the roadway with his running shoes in Scotia on Sept. 1.

Gary Geiger has always been up to the challenge. At 74, he’s sprinted down tracks often winning races at state-wide competitions and still likes to do twenty miles a week jogging. But after taking a recent test as part of his annual physical, he got the shock of his life.

“I’ve always prided myself on how fit I was, so I went in to this coronary calcium scan with a cavalier kind of attitude thinking my score would be low. When my GP told me my score I thought she was joking. She said calcium was everywhere. It’s the curse,” Geiger said. “Thank you very much ancestors.”

The coronary calcium scan measures how much calcium is in plaque in the arteries. Plaque, which also includes cholesterol and fats, can grow and restrict blood flow to the muscles of the heart and can contribute to possible heart disease. In Geiger’s case, he has a family history of heart disease with male members going back generations who died between the ages of the late 40s to the 60s. Geiger at 74 said he was the oldest living Geiger in generations.

On looking back, Geiger said he had no clue. A 1965 graduate of Linton High School, he’d always been involved in track and field events that over the years included meets in Syracuse and all over New England. He was the 1980 200-meter champion at the Eastern Regionals in Hartford in the 30-34 age group; won gold medals at the Empire State Games in the 100-meter and 200-meter races and later at the state’s senior games in the 100- and 400-meter races and was first in the United States in 2002 in the 55-meter dash for 55-59 age group. He also won in powerlifting in the lightweight and middleweight divisions in the 1975 and 1978 Eastern State competitions and was a member of the Empire State Games open division in Olympic style lifting in the snatch and clean and jerk categories.

“My life has been centered in athletics,” he said. “It’s a way of life.”

Over the years he’d train four days a week as a sprinter but only age began to give him some problems. He had some injuries and a few years back developed prostate problems that put him out for five months.

“Recovery time was long but then I began doing power walks,” Geiger said. “But I’d lost a lot of endurance and body weight.”

An odd pressure

He soldiered on and built up his stamina to work out up to six days a week, mostly as a middle distance runner, something he said his body seemed to like. On some of his runs, however, he started to notice an odd pressure in his left pectoral region that came and went. At his annual physical that year he mentioned it to his primary and was shocked when she suggested he needed to get to a cardiologist and take a stress test. He’d also asked her about taking a test a relative had taken — the coronary calcium scan. That she declined. Instead, Geiger decided not to take the stress test and went back to running as usual although the strange pressure continued to come and go.

But in July Geiger contacted his primary again and asked for the coronary calcium test. This time she agreed. The test and the entire process take up to 15 minutes. Electrodes are attached to the chest and connect to a device that records the heart’s activity even as X-ray pictures are taken between heartbeats.

“All coronary plaque has calcium and that lights up on the CT scans,” said Dr. Sandeep Mangalmurti of Cardiology Associates of Schenectady, Geiger’s cardiologist. “The test has been used intermittently in the last decade or two. But now we’re more aggressive with the calcium scores especially with patients with borderline risks.”

In standard blood tests, cholesterol levels are only crude indicators and don’t tell the entire picture.

“The scan is totally different. Otherwise there’s no way of knowing,” he said. “The test is reliable in that it shows how much calcium is in the plaque. But you don’t want to over-read the test. Family history plays a role as well as a patient with risks like having diabetes, a sedentary life style, smoking and borderline cholesterol.”

Mangalmurti said many medical professionals, including himself, have taken the test. His results, for example, were good and gave him confidence to continue doing what he was doing. But anyone who’s interested in taking the test should talk to their doctor. Insurance generally does not cover the cost, which can range from $75 to $100.

“You need to look at the whole patient. This is not an age-related issue,” he said.

Geiger, however, immediately had to make some changes. He was put on a baby aspirin and statins and began eating even more healthily than previously with a Mediterranean-type diet. But because of his family history, he was told that it was his family’s DNA that contributed to producing so much plaque.

Geiger also wanted to go back to working out vigorously, which is why Mangalmurti suggested he take further tests, which included an almost all-day nuclear stress test that involves more pictures of his heart, a workout on a treadmill and an echocardiogram that showed up what Mangalmurti said was a “mild abnormality” called a stenosis or a small narrowing of an artery. A procedure has been suggested to possibly correct this, but that’s something Geiger has yet to decide on.

“This has all been quite a shock just since July but I have a wonderful team and I love my doctors,” Geiger said. “But at heart I’m a sprinter and they want instant gratification. . .and I want to maintain my quality of life as long as I can. I can’t see myself sitting in a chair in a nursing home. I feel the test saved my life. My blood work never indicated any problems. We all have an expiration date and my job is running. My goal: hit the finish line and then drop.”

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