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Fast response puts marathon runner on road to speedy recovery

Tom Clayton looks like the picture of health. At 44, he has completed 17 marathons and five  triathlons. He runs three or four days a week, six to 14 miles at a time.

It was another number, however, that stopped him cold in late October – a 99 percent coronary artery blockage, opened with three stents at Baptist Health Paducah.

“All of my friends, who are physically fit, said I’m the last person they would think of having a heart attack,” said Clayton, a Paducah Bank senior vice-president. “I’ve never had any health problems, except the flu when I was in college. I was pretty healthy, I thought. I try to eat reasonably well. I try not to eat fried food or red meat. I’m an avid runner.”

Clayton had overlooked a major risk factor to his health – family history. His maternal grandfather died from a heart attack at 41, as had a great-uncle at 36.

“I really had no warning signs,” Clayton said. “There was really nothing leading up to it to believe I had any heart trouble. I woke up one morning to get up to run. Within four minutes, I felt very nauseous. I thought I had the flu.”

Clayton’s wife, Signe, called his mother, Linda Clayton, a retired nurse, who asked him if he had the symptoms of a heart attack.

“I had no arm pain,” he said. “But I didn’t notice I was short of breath until my mom asked me. It did feel like something was lying on top of me. I couldn’t get a deep breath.”

After the phone call, Signe Clayton insisted her husband go to the Baptist Health Paducah Emergency department and drove him there herself after he refused to let her call an ambulance.

“She said, ‘My husband is 44 and I think he’s having a heart attack,’ ” he recalled. “My tail-end never hit a chair. They were hooking up wires to me and I said, ‘What are you doing? It’s not my heart.’ I can remember saying, ‘I’m a marathon runner. I never get sick.’ ”

Twenty-one minutes later, in the heart catheterization laboratory, cardiologist Kenneth Ford, M.D., was opening his right coronary artery with stents.

Dr. Ford said it is unusual, but not rare, for someone in Clayton’s physical condition to have a heart attack. “Professional athletes are a good example,” Dr. Ford said. “Family history is very important to consider when evaluating cardiac risk. If Tom smoked or didn’t exercise, he might have had a heart attack at a much younger age.”

Dr. Ford said Clayton’s wife did the right thing by getting him to the hospital immediately. “That permitted rapid treatment, which resulted in little permanent damage,” he said.

Two weeks later, Clayton was back to work and working out three days a week at Baptist Health Paducah Cardiac Rehab. “They said I had minimal damage and I can resume normal activity,” Clayton said. “I have aspirations of running another marathon.”

Clayton said he tells everyone now not to ignore symptoms or their family history. “You really need to talk to your family about any history of heart problems,” he said. “Physically active people are not exempt from this condition.”

Take a free, five-minute survey at to calculate your own risk for a heart attack. If you have questions about the symptoms of a heart attack, talk to one of our nurses any time 24/7 on the Chest Pain & Stroke Hotline at 1-800-575-1911.