Mountain and stream

Dr. Steve Parcell's Personal Cardiovascular Story

Like most of us, I have a personal story that got me into this. I grew up in Simsbury, Connecticut, in the 1960s and 1970s. My father died tragically on May 11, 1974, at the age of forty-seven while on a family canoe trip. While we were attempting to navigate through a series of bridge pylons, our canoe capsized and the whole family was immersed in the frigid spring waters of the Farmington River. Although the stated cause of my father’s death was drowning, the coroner believed that a heart attack is what prevented him from swimming to shore. In May, the water in Connecticut is still very cold. Sudden immersion in frigid water causes a dramatic rise in heart rate and blood pressure, which can put too much stress on a weak system and result in a stroke or heart attack. I’m sure the cold was too much for my dad’s heart. He had a high-stress job as a production manager at a Hartford, Connecticut, television station at the time. He was also overweight, had high cholesterol (hypercholesterolemia), got zero regular exercise, and had high blood pressure (hypertension).
            This accident happened on my twelfth birthday, which happened to be Mother’s Day that year. The accident pitched my family into chaos. We had to sell our house, my mom started working full-time as a secretary, and life became difficult. I was shipped off to boarding school in rural Connecticut for three years. 
After graduating from New England College in 1986, I experimented with different careers until I enrolled in the University of Vermont’s Post-Baccalaureate Premedical Program. I entered Bastyr University (a naturopathic medical school) in 1997 and graduated in 2002. While at Bastyr I worked for a research department funded by the National Institutes of Health. I also worked as a research assistant for the American Institute for Biosocial and Medical Research. 
            While at my residency I saw the benefits of aggressive prevention on heart disease patients and noticed that reductions in coronary plaque were possible. Around this time I underwent my first electron beam computed tomography scan (EBCT), more popularly known as an EBT heart scan.
            The EBT is a sophisticated computerized X-ray that accurately identifies and quantifies the presence or absence of calcium deposits in and around the coronary arteries. The calcium deposits indicate mature plaque, also called calcified plaque. Calcified plaque is what causes hardening of the arteries. Strong statistical correlation exists between the presence of these calcium deposits and the presence of coronary heart disease.
            My first test showed that I was in the ninety-first percentile for my age. This means that only 9 percent of forty-two-year-old men (my age at the time) had a worse score than mine. Conversely, 90 percent had a better score. I was shocked. Heart disease is the number-one cause of death worldwide and in the United States, and I had very unhealthy arteries compared to my fellow Americans. Americans have an even higher risk of heart attacks compared to most other countries. At the time my cholesterol numbers were pretty good, I exercised six to eight hours a week, did not smoke, and ate an almost perfect diet. At this point I began rigorous study into the prevention and treatment of heart disease and, more specifically, the reversal of coronary plaque. I have been tracking my plaque since then and have seen it reverse direction and am now in the seventieth percentile for my age. One year I saw a 34% DECREASE in calcified plaque. I try to do the same for all my patients, with much better-than-average results.