Tim Smith, 42, of Loyalsock, never expected he would need heart surgery at 41, but, he credits those scars with bringing him back to the things that matter most in life — relationships with family, friends, and God.
“Having a heart attack wasn’t just an attack on my body, it was an attack on my ability to live for the things that matter most to me. The song “Scars,” by I Am They carried me through my recovery,” said Tim.
Tim has always been active. His family enjoys hiking, swimming, and bike riding — anything that puts them in the middle of nature. Part of his drive to stay active was knowing his genetics were stacked against him. Tim has a family history of heart disease, and in his 20’s he learned he had a cholesterol imbalance.
“Knowing my family history motivated me to stay fit and active, but I didn’t think I would have a heart attack,” he said.
The Day Life Changed
On a Sunday morning in the spring of 2019, Tim started on a routine mountain bike ride. He and seven of his friends were on a trail in South Williamsport, but Tim was struggling from the beginning.
“During the initial climb, I just couldn’t keep up,” said Tim. “I was even walking at one point. Then my friends made me stop; they knew something wasn’t right.”
Tim stopped at a trail intersection and lay down to rest. Eerily, he was resting next to a memorial of someone who had passed away on the trail. Once his heart rate slowed down, he headed down the hill and back home. By Monday morning he still felt sick, so he called his doctor.
A Trip to the Emergency Room
An electrocardiogram (EKG) showed Tim had an irregular heartbeat, so his doctor made an appointment with a cardiologist for further testing. In the meantime, Tim and his family had a weekend of activities planned for Memorial Day.
“I was at Pine Creek with my wife, Tomi-Jo, and my kids, Silas and Stella,” said Tim. “I was following doctor’s orders and not exerting myself too much, but when your kids want to go for a walk, you take them for a walk. As soon as I picked up Silas, who is only five, I couldn’t walk any further.”
Even though Tim suspected something serious was wrong, he continued his day and tucked his kids into bed that night. As he was brushing his teeth, he felt the tell-tale sharp pain down his arm.
“I suddenly couldn’t feel my arm,” said Tim. “It hurt worse than a root canal. I knew if that pain hit my chest, I would be in trouble.”
Tim’s friend rushed him to the emergency room at UPMC Williamsport while his wife stayed home with the sleeping kids.
Severe Heart Blockage
After a night of tests, the cardiology team believed Tim had a blockage in one of the arteries leading to his heart. A cardiac catheterization would be needed to find and clear the blockage. Robert Trautwein, MD, was scheduled to perform the procedure the next day.
“Dr. Trautwein is good at what he does,” said Tim. “I was awake enough to watch him clear the blockage, but on enough medication that I didn’t feel anything. As I watched him work, I couldn’t help but think I was in the right hands at the right time.”
The cardiac catheterization was done through a small incision in Tim’s wrist. The procedure, a transradial cardiac catheterization, is a safer and less invasive approach to performing catheterizations. A thin catheter is threaded through the network of arteries in the arm and chest to reach the heart. A stent is then placed at the site of the blockage to open the artery so blood can reach the heart.
“I couldn’t believe there was barely a cut in my wrist,” Tim remembers. “The entire thing was amazing to see, and I was home a few days later. I can’t thank Dr. Trautwein and the entire cardiology team enough.”
Life After a Heart Attack
After the surgery, Dr. Trautwein told Tim’s wife that life would be a little different going forward.
Tim recalls, “The doctor told my wife that although I appeared to be in good shape, my heart was riddled with plaque. It shook us because he said without significant changes, I was likely to be in the same situation again.”
From there, Tim and his family had a conversation about how life was going to change — no fast food, low sodium, and no more bacon.
“Bacon was a tough one,” Tim laughed. “We made big changes. It is a good thing my wife loves to cook and she has learned to make great, healthy meals.”
Tim also had to learn how to exercise and trust his body again. Tim enrolled in the cardiac rehabilitation program, CHAMPS (Cardiovascular Health Activities Make People Strong), at UPMC Williamsport. CHAMPS not only improves your fitness level and reduces your future risk factors for heart disease, it helps you understand the signals your body is sending you.
“My body and my mind had a lot of adjusting to do,” remembers Tim. “I had never taken medication, and I was nervous and afraid to strain my heart again.”
Cardiac rehab slowly helped Tim build his confidence in exercising. Through coaching, education, and building his physical stamina, the cardiac rehab team had Tim back to the gym in no time. In fact, he became so confident that he went on a mountain bike ride with some friends.
“I was a little over confident. In the gym, you don’t have adrenaline or the elements you have outdoors,” said Tim. “That experience made me want to go back to cardiac rehab and work on my endurance. The cardiac rehab team supported me so much through this journey.”
Tim is now stronger than ever. He has lost 25 pounds and is in the best shape of his life. A few weeks after completing cardiac rehab and just three months after his heart attack, Tim competed in the Laurel Classic Mountain Bike Challenge.
“My goal was to finish safely and stay in my target heart rate,” said Tim. “I finished thirteenth overall, thanks to the support and encouragement from the CHAMPS staff.”
Living for the Things that Matter
Now that Tim has come through this experience, he has a renewed sense of purpose. Not only does he encourage others to take care of themselves and understand their heart risk factors, but he also doesn’t want anyone to take life for granted.
“I want to make sure that I encourage people to lead a healthy, physical life, but also to pursue a meaningful spiritual life through the gift of Jesus,” said Tim.
Tim is committed to serving God locally through his church and is also continuing that work abroad in February when he leaves with a team for a mission trip to Papua New Guinea.
“It is amazing to think that less than a year after a heart attack I have the confidence to travel to such a rural, remote location to help others as they pursue a meaningful relationship with God,” said Tim.
The Heart & Vascular Institute at UPMC provides complete care for cardiac rehabilitation in Williamsport, Lock Haven, and Wellsboro.
Tim's treatment and results may not be representative of similar cases.