June and Paul Baker, who live in Southport, North Carolina, have been married for 52 years. A former firefighter, Paul’s the strong, silent type. June calls him “a man of few words.” The couple is so simpatico that June can speak for the two of them.

As a relationship manager for Novant Health Medical Group in coastal Brunswick County, June knows many of the providers in the region. When Paul needed her help when he began feeling lethargic in 2018, she was a constant comfort and effective advocate.

It would lead them on a journey with surprise revelations and a lifesaving procedure that made the couple even more grateful to have high-quality health care close at hand.

Calcium scoring test?

Paul was originally seen at Novant Health Brunswick Medical Center but was eventually sent for surgery about 30 minutes up the road to New Hanover Regional Medical Center (NHRMC), which, as of Feb. 1, is part of Novant Health.

“I had a stress test and an echocardiogram done, and both said I was fine,” he said. “But I was still feeling sluggish. I just didn't have any energy. And in August 2019, cardiologist Dr. James McCriskin, recommended a calcium scoring test.”

June interjected: “I've worked in health care for many years, and I had never heard of it.” The noninvasive test takes less than 15 minutes and helps detect calcium buildup, or plaque, in the arteries. It can detect the risk for heart disease and a future cardiac event.

Dr. Peter Kane
Dr. Peter Kane

“It’s a great screening tool,” said Dr. Peter Kane, the New Hanover cardiothoracic surgeon the Bakers were referred to. “It doesn't really tell you you're about to have a catastrophic event, but it tells you that you have a problem that needs further investigation. The test helps direct what the next step is going to be.”

In the Bakers’ case, insurance didn’t cover the cost. But Brunswick Medical Center offers cardiac calcium scoring for a greatly reduced rate of $99. Typically, scores range from zero to 400, June said. “Zero means the likelihood of blockages is nil. The closer you get to 400, the more likely you are to have blockages.”

A scary number

About two hours post-test, they got a call. “Paul's score was 1,317,” June said. “That meant blockages were extremely likely.”

Another doctor performed cardiac catheterization, a procedure where a tube is inserted into the circulatory system to diagnose the seriousness of a heart condition. “June, he’s going to need open-heart surgery,”’ she was told. “Well, I about died. It’s quite a shock when you go from ‘There’s nothing wrong’ to that. We got referred to Dr. Peter Kane in Wilmington.”

“I cannot say enough about New Hanover,” June said. “They not only took wonderful care of my husband, but they took great care of me. They let me know what was going on during surgery and what was coming next. They gave me warm blankets. It was just like ‘the Novant Health way.’ We always put the patient first, and that's how I felt at New Hanover. I was completely blown away by the treatment we got.

“This new partnership is going to open up care to residents of Brunswick County where we live,” she added. “We can't do everything at our community hospital. What we do, we do very well, but there are times you need a higher level of care.”

That’s what New Hanover offers. “In 2019, our mortality rate – meaning the risk of having a fatal event – with coronary bypass surgery was … very low,” Kane said, placing it far ahead of many other health care systems.

“Mr. Baker had three bypasses using all arterial grafts – which is something we commonly do here – as opposed to using a vein out of the leg,” the surgeon continued. “In his case, I used two arteries from his chest and one artery from his arm. His heart function, when he left, was normal. It was a straightforward operation, he did well and went home and hasn’t had to come back.”

No surgery is ever routine for the patient, Kane said, but this surgery is routine for New Hanover heart surgeons. “We do about 500 coronary bypass surgeries every year,” he said. “And we’ve been performing open-heart surgery here since 1987. We cover all aspects of cardiac surgery with the exception of heart transplantation.”

A simple, but lifesaving, test

Even with triple bypass surgery, Paul was up and walking around the ICU that night. He was in the hospital for seven days and then faced months of outpatient cardiac rehab after that.

“He did the full gamut in cardiac rehab and got the T-shirt and hat and all that,” June joked. “He graduated with honors and is now back to walking and exercising. He never sits still now.”

Doctors explained to the Bakers why every other test – prior to the calcium scoring – looked normal. “Paul has always been very active,” June said. “He was a firefighter and always in really good shape. His heart had compensated. It had done all sorts of things to keep him oxygenated. Had we not had that cardiac calcium scoring done, we would have had no idea. It could have been catastrophic.”

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The calcium scoring test is remarkably simple. “It’s like a CT of your heart,” June said. “It’s just an X-ray. You don’t have to do any prep for it, and it’s painless. It took 10 minutes, and our cost was about $100. If he hadn’t had that test, Paul would be gone by now.”

“I have been on the bandwagon ever since,” said June. “I tell people this is the best $100 you’ll ever spend, and I give Dr. McCriskin all the credit.”

Kane does, too. “Mr. Baker’s issue was picked up because his physician ordered the right test,” he said. “The test indicated a problem. And then that test result triggered a closer investigation, which revealed blockages in his coronary arteries.”

Life is back to normal for the Bakers. Paul’s high blood pressure is under control, and he takes baby aspirin daily for this heart. “He only sees the cardiologist once a year now,” June said.

But the Bakers have become “the poster couple” for cardiac calcium scoring tests. “I immediately started telling all the primary care doctors I support about it,” said June, who hosts the HealthWatch talk show on ATMC-TV community television. “I think it’s foremost in their minds now.”

Paul doesn't like the limelight, “but he's doing it for me because I'm so passionate about this,” June said. “This test saved his life, and I just couldn't bear the thought of losing him.”