Doctor turns patient with cardiac screening

Dr. Richard Berquist, a family practice physician and emergency medicine doctor with Community Medical Providers, looks a decade younger than his 50-something age. He’s buff and tan from daily kayaking, roller-blading and yoga. He eats a low-fat, semi-vegetarian diet and keeps his cholesterol low. He’s the last person anyone would suspect had a serious heart problem – even an expert like him.

But Dr. Berquist said when he hit his early 50s he decided to take the advice he gives his own patients and do a cardiac stress test on a treadmill.

The in-office run wasn’t perfect so he went to cardiologist Dr. Donald Gregory for further testing before he made his annual mountain trek. Further testing showed a slight abnormality in function, but Dr. Berquist got a green light to hike Mount Whitney and then Machu Picchu at 7,875 feet, just as long as he kept his heart rate under 140 beats a minute.

“So I bought one of those exercise heart monitors and went,” Dr. Berquist said. “And every year before I do any mountain climbing I go and get a stress test.”

Dr. Berquist said he’d been resisting doing catheterization to inject dye in the arteries that feed his heart and take a closer look with an X-ray.

“But this year, I noticed it was just a little harder to exercise,” he said. “Then my uncle died suddenly of a heart attack at 65, right after his retirement party. …So I thought before I did my annual climb up Half Dome with the Clovis ER staff, that I should check my heart out further.”

Dr. Berquist said he couldn’t believe what he saw on the monitor screen while he was lying on the catheterization table at Fresno Heart & Surgical Hospital – and neither could his cardiologist. “It was surprising because, he didn’t have any risk factors. He’s always been kind of a model of health,” Dr. Gregory said.

He described what the two doctors saw: “Of the three arteries that feed the heart, his main one – the largest one that feeds the heart – was nearly closed off. It was 95% blocked right where it arises, jeopardizing the entire front of his heart. And at that point in time we became very thankful that we were there.”

Within 20 minutes, Dr. Gregory had inserted a small balloon to open up the blockage, pushing the plaque back to the artery walls. Then he inserted a wire mesh stent to keep the vessel open. Dr. Berquist was back at work in a few days and plans to climb mountains again soon.

“A little after that I had a first cousin who died at age 44 of a heart attack … The thought still haunts me; that if I had resisted that test I might not be here today,” Dr. Berquist said. “I never had any indication of trouble. I never felt any chest pains.”

Dr. Berquist said he readily tells his patients now that having a catheterization is not that big a deal. He said he didn’t feel anything as he watched the tiny tube snaking from his groin up to his heart. And afterwards he had only a little soreness at the insertion site.

For a while, Dr. Berquist said, he hesitated to talk about his experience because it unnerved him so much. But now he’s speaking out to encourage others like him – middle-aged people in the picture of health – to take one more step towards maintaining their good health. “If I can get one man to go to his doctor and ask to get his cholesterol checked and get a stress test, telling my story will be worth it.”

Click here for more information on how to get a free cardiac screening.


This story was reported by Erin Kennedy. She can be reached at ekennedy@communitymedical.org.