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New Jersey man pays attention to family history, and lives to tell about it

By American Heart Association News

Sammy Rabin doesn’t like to brag but, until he learned he needed triple bypass surgery, he’d considered himself “the poster child for good health.”

He’d been exercising regularly for 30 years, ate a vegetarian diet and ran marathons.

“I did everything I could to stay healthy,” said Rabin, 65, the director of operations for a travel company in Fairfield, New Jersey. “I had to, because I had genetics working against me.”

Rabin’s father, Jack, died of a heart attack when he was 68. His brother, Arthur, died from one when he was only 46.

Sammy Rabin with his father, Jack, who died of a heart attack at 68. (Photo courtesy of Sammy Rabin)

But Rabin had always felt fit and strong and so he wasn’t concerned when he felt a mild pain in his chest in 2013 while training for the Philadelphia Marathon.

“I thought I’d pulled a muscle, even when it hurt for three days straight,” he said.

But on the fourth day, when the pain started radiating down his arm, he realized it wasn’t something to toy with.

He called his cardiologist to describe his symptoms and, before he’d even finished, the doctor stopped him mid-sentence and said he wanted Rabin in his office the very next morning.

A stress test, heart scan and angiogram revealed serious blockages in three of Rabin’s coronary arteries. The doctor said the situation was so serious, he wanted to do bypass surgery that night.

But Rabin put the brakes on that notion.

“I wanted some other opinions,” he said.

He talked to five other cardiologists, and four of them recommended surgery.

The fifth? He suggested stents, but with the caveat that, if Rabin went that route, he’d never be able to run like he had before.

“I decided to have the surgery,” he said.

Giovanni Campanile, M.D., Rabin’s cardiologist, said it’s rare for someone like him to have such severe coronary blockages.

“I told Sammy that if he didn’t live the kind of healthy lifestyle he did, he might have had a heart attack 10 years earlier,” said Campanile, director of Ornish Intensive Cardiac Rehabilitation at Morristown Medical Center in New Jersey.

The bypass surgery went well and Rabin was soon walking the hospital corridors. Released after only five days, he was jogging slowly within three and a half weeks.

Sammy Rabin and his wife, Debra, at a resort two months after his heart surgery. His chest scar is visible. (Photo courtesy of Sammy Rabin)

But the recovery wasn’t without its bumps. Several weeks after surgery he had a bout of pericarditis, an inflammation of the fluid-filled sac called the pericardium that surrounds the heart. An anti-inflammatory cleared up the condition and he hasn’t had a relapse.

According to Campanile, at least once a year and for the foreseeable future, Rabin will undergo testing to measure blood flow through his coronary arteries. And, if he continues living his healthy lifestyle, his long-term prognosis is excellent.

Still, Campanile cautioned, when it comes to heart health, Rabin’s story highlights the importance of looking beyond the numbers, such as cholesterol and blood pressure, and taking your family history into account.

“Because both his father and brother died of heart attacks, Sammy knew to see a doctor when he was having those chest pains,” said Campanile. “That probably saved his life.”

Two years to the day following his surgery, Rabin ran the 2015 New York City Marathon. While his time of 5 hours, 10 minutes, 6 seconds was his slowest ever and well off his personal best of 3:36:43, he no longer keeps his eye on the clock.

He has bigger things on his mind.

“That marathon was the most meaningful and rewarding one ever for me,” he said. “After crossing the finish line, I had tears mixing in with my sweat. I felt blessed to be running at all.”

Sammy Rabin in 2015, as he neared the finish line of the New York City Marathon. (Photo courtesy of Sammy Rabin)

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