Carlisle County farmer William Curtsinger had a life-changing experience last year that made him quit smoking, change his diet and urge others to think about their health more.
Last summer, like countless others, William was on a family vacation. He noticed his chest acting funny and hurting at certain times, along with a pain in his right arm. The symptoms "weirded" them out and the family came home early.
It preceded a medical ordeal that spanned several months, where William made many ER visits, experienced a heart attack, got stents in his heart and ultimately underwent triple bypass heart surgery in early December. He's only 35, but has a family history of heart disease on both sides.
"I guess you could say I dodged a freight train because I could've just kept on going and not told nobody and just kept walking it off," he said, looking back. "And I'd have probably walked myself right into the grave."
After coming home, William went to a local clinic for answers and thought it might be acid reflux, since it happened after he ate a couple times. However, a short period of time later, William had an episode while out to eat with his wife.
"It just wouldn't go away," he said. "It took about 20, 30 minutes and my friend's a nurse and ... she came outside, checked my pulse and she goes, 'You're going to the hospital right now. Your heart's just racing.'"
William went to Mercy Health - Lourdes Hospital.
"We did a stress test the next morning and then passed it," he said. "They thought it was blood pressure related, maybe, just because I was 35 and people with heart problems at this young is just kind of … it's not unheard of, but it's just rare."
William would go on to make more ER visits, learned he had gallstones and thought that might be the problem, but he would later have a heart attack. He went into the cath lab for stents from Mercy Health interventional cardiologist Dr. J. David Talley.
The experience caused William to quit smoking, just about cold turkey, and change his diet and a few other things, before going on to work all through harvest season. He felt fine.
"And then about, the first of November, I went in for a checkup with Dr. Talley and I'd been noticing that I was starting to have the same symptoms again," William said. "They just weren't as bad."
He'd undergo another stress test and return to the cath lab, where Talley found more artery blockage above the stents. That's when William learned he'd need open-heart surgery, which made him feel pretty scared.
"Really, I mean this is weird," he added. "I thought open-heart surgery and everything was for like - no offense to older people - 60, 70, 80-year-old men or something like that. And just to be 35 and fixing to go through a pretty substantial surgery that you might not wake up through, it was pretty scary."
However, the major surgery went well and William was discharged to return home and recover. He started to get back into his previous routine after a couple weeks, with a new perspective to eat well, take "preventative" medications, exercise more and do things differently.
"We definitely couldn't have gotten through it without friends, family, our work people," said William's wife, Holly Curtsinger. "I mean, everybody was, 'What can we do? What can we do for you?' We had them helping with the kids. It was a lot."
He described it as "life-altering," while Holly said God was definitely on their side.
William's case is not typical though considering his age, according to Dr. Talley.
Coronary heart disease in the young, which he defined as less than age 45, is "unusual." It occurs in a smaller percentage of the patient population, but there are still risk factors that can tip a doctor off.
Talley said the disease is a top killer in the U.S. and a public health concern that causes a "tremendous amount" of morbidity and mortality. It's more common in people with risk factors, such as cigarette use, family history, elevated cholesterol and being male.
"There's like clusters of populations that are particularly prone to this disease," he explained. "If you look at how these people, young people with coronary artery disease, do over time, if they take of themselves, by which I mean - they control their risk factors, they quit smoking, they get moderate exercise, they watch their lipids, watch their glucose, control their blood pressure - they really do better long-term than individuals who are older."
Symptoms in younger patients are similar to older patients.
The No. 1 sign for Talley is exertional chest pain that goes away with rest. It can also be predictable pain, so it's not just when you walk to the mailbox one time, but when you go every time.
"You have to be aware of your body, especially the symptoms and the risk factors and seek prompt evaluation," he said.
In the end, William advises other younger people to get their health checked out.
"I was the guy that, I hadn't been to the doctor (before) this happened probably, unless it was something minor - maybe like a cold - I hadn't been to the doctor in probably 10 years, seven, eight, 10 years," he said. "But I'd say anybody over the age of 30, you need to start having all your blood pressure, cholesterol and all that checked. Just to be safe."