Nelson Morales, who was once known as “Mr. Churrasco” to his friends, now calls himself “the luckiest man alive.”
Mr. Morales (pictured above with his wife, Roxana Baron) discovered he was at high risk for a heart attack almost by chance, after co-workers urged him to take advantage of a low-cost cardiac calcium CT scan  offered at many Baptist Health facilities. His study, performed at West Kendall Baptist Hospital, showed three blocked arteries — basically, a heart attack waiting to happen.
“I had no symptoms,” said Mr. Morales, R.N., an operating room nurse at the hospital who was 54 years old at the time. “I had gained some weight in the past few years and my cholesterol was high, but I’m active, I go to the gym and I never had a problem.” He’s also a black belt in judo.
The cardiac calcium scoring test looks for calcium deposits in the walls of the heart’s arteries, which can be a sign of heart disease, the longtime leading cause of death in the United States. The more calcium, the higher the score and the odds of death. A normal score of zero means there’s a very low risk of a heart attack in the next 10 years, according to Ricardo Cury, M.D. , medical director of cardiac imaging at Miami Cardiac & Vascular Institute  at Baptist Hospital. On the other hand, a score of 400 or more indicates extensive plaque. Treatment options depend on all risk factors.
The day after his scan, Mr. Morales received a phone call with bad news. His calcium score was 655. A week later, he had a stress test performed by Efrain Gonzalez, M.D. , the Institute’s medical director of electrophysiology at Baptist Hospital. During the test, Mr. Morales had no shortness of breath, chest pain or irregular heartbeat, usually among the signs of heart disease.
The next stop was the cardiac catheterization lab for an angioplasty that would attempt to remove plaque and restore normal blood flow. Unfortunately, Mr. Morales’ vessels could not be opened during the minimally invasive procedure. So, the next day, Baptist Health Medical Group cardiac surgeon Marco Bologna, M.D. , performed triple bypass surgery at the Institute at Baptist Hospital.
“When I went to the cath lab, I told my boss to leave me on the schedule because I’d be at work the next day,” Mr. Morales recalled. “Imagine my surprise when I was told I needed open-heart surgery.”
It’s not unheard of for someone with a high calcium score to have no symptoms, Dr. Bologna said. “At the same time, it’s obvious when you have a very high score like his that you are going to need some intervention.”
After surgery, the man who once loved steak became practically a vegetarian. By last summer, he had lost more than 20 pounds. His cholesterol, a very high 300 mg/dl at the time of surgery, has dropped to 100 with medication, weight loss and diet modification. Doctors say total cholesterol should be under 200.
He credits the calcium scoring test for getting his health back on track. “I feel amazing,” Mr. Morales said. “I’m really the luckiest man alive.”
Special Price for Cardiac Calcium Scoring During Heart Month
In recognition of American Heart Month, Miami Cardiac & Vascular Institute will offer $50 cardiac calcium scoring tests at Baptist Health locations in Miami-Dade, Broward, Monroe. The test is also being offered in Palm Beach County at Bethesda Hospital East, Bethesda Hospital West and Bethesda Outpatient Imaging at Wellington and Palm Beach counties during February. A doctor’s prescription and appointment, scheduled by Feb. 16, are required. For more information or to request an appointment, call 786-573-6000 in Miami-Dade or Broward, 305-434-1588 in Monroe, email Screenings@BaptistHealth.net or visit BaptistHealth.net/HeartScreening . In Palm Beach, call 561-374-5700 or visit BethesdaWeb.com/HeartScreening .
This article was previously published in Baptist Health South Florida’s Resource magazine .