Story by: Lynne Choate; Reviewed by Kelly C. McCants, M.D. on September 6, 2023
It’s not every day that your doctor calls you a textbook example. But that’s what Pastor F. Bruce Williams’ cardiologist called him.
Pastor Williams is an example for other African American men. He knows that his race puts him at increased risk for various health conditions, so he takes a proactive approach to his health.
“I was eating mostly healthy foods, I was exercising multiple times a week and very active, I was managing my stress as best I could, and I was seeing my primary care provider on a regular basis,” he said. “And every appointment when my blood pressure would be just a few digits higher, I would promise to do better. What I didn’t know is that I was causing damage to my heart.”
In May 2020, Pastor Williams had his annual physical; and while he was feeling more and more tired, he assumed it was normal for a busy leader of a large church, struggling through the early stages of the pandemic and traveling.
When his primary care provider, Handel A. Jones, M.D., Norton Community Medical Associates primary care in Crestwood, listened to Pastor Williams’ heart and heard something he described as “off,” he sent Pastor Williams for additional tests.
The results revealed Pastor Williams had nonischemic cardiomyopathy related to hypertension (high blood pressure). He was experiencing systolic heart failure as a result of blood pressure that was slightly elevated for several years. Pastor Williams was referred to Norton Heart & Vascular Institute Advanced Heart Failure & Recovery Program.
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The term “heart failure” can sound terrifying.
“I remember thinking, ‘Heart failure? How is this possible and what do I tell my children, my wife and my church family?’” Pastor Williams said. “It was reassuring to walk in and see Dr. McCants — someone I know, someone I trust.”
Pastor Williams already had a relationship with the cardiologist he would be seeing. Kelly C. McCants, M.D., executive medical director, Norton Heart & Vascular Institute Advanced Heart Failure & Recovery Program, and executive director, Institute for Health Equity, a Part of Norton Healthcare, also is a member of Bates Memorial Baptist Church, where Pastor Williams is senior pastor.
Dr. McCants explained to Pastor Williams what exactly heart failure means, even drawing a diagram of the heart and explaining how it was functioning at only a fraction of its ability.
Systolic heart failure affects the left ventricle, which becomes too weak to pump blood to the body normally.
In the midst of the conversation, Dr. McCants said, “We can fix it.” This snapped Pastor Williams back into the moment.
“Dr. McCants told me there was a medication that would not only stop the process but rebuild the muscle and help heal my heart, but there is one catch: You have to stay on it for the rest of your life,” Pastor Williams said. “I said, ‘Sign me up!’”
“Pastor Williams is a textbook example for heart recovery,” Dr. McCants said. “His heart failure was caught early, and within weeks we were able to get him started on a medication, monitored him closely and now he is making a recovery.”
The incidence of heart failure in African American men under age 50 is three to four times higher than in men of other races and ethnicities. While Pastor Williams was a few years past his 50th birthday at the time of his diagnosis, his heart failure probably began in his mid-40s.
“High blood pressure does damage under the dark of night,” Dr. McCants said. “Many of the side effects, such as headaches, feeling tired and nosebleeds, go undetected — but destruction to the heart muscle continues to mount all the while.”
Blood pressure is considered to be elevated at 140/90. Most people can manage high blood pressure by taking medication, changing their eating habits and exercising more. But if you don’t know your blood pressure, you can’t manage it. That’s why regular visits with your primary care provider are so important.
Now with his heart on the mend, Pastor Williams is sharing his story. He advocates for friends, family and even strangers to find a primary care provider they trust and see them on a regular basis.
“Regardless of how you feel, go see your doctor routinely,” Pastor Williams said. “It was because of that routine visit that my heart failure was discovered.”
He also encourages people to keep a positive perspective:
“If you have something you need to deal with, then you deal with it. Stop putting it off, because if you don’t want to handle it, it will handle you.”
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