BLOCKED ARTERIES FLOWING
Marc Nakao feels lucky to be alive.
After all, he’s a man who walked into the UC Davis Medical Center Emergency Department and moments later was lying on an operating table undergoing heart surgery — so fast that his father, who’d dropped him off at the door, hadn’t had time to walk back from the parking lot.
Sometimes in the midst of living our lives, as this fused glass artist knows, we see through a glass darkly. It’s often only in hindsight that we finally see clearly. In Marc’s case, he now strongly suspects he’d had an overlooked heart condition for years, including a heart attack that was misdiagnosed by another health system.
One thing he’s completely sure of: “The people at UC Davis Health, they’re the reason I’m alive today.” They’ve placed nine stents in his coronary arteries and three in his femoral arteries.
Marc wasn’t always unhealthy. He’s never been overweight. He walks a lot, he shows a lot of houses as a real estate agent, he used to be a yard work fanatic and for years he stayed busy renovating houses. And in his free time, he designs, cuts, arranges and fires decorative glass art with his mother.
A critical misdiagnosis
But several years ago, he began having trouble with pain and weakness in his legs. A few years later, on a vacation to New York City, he experienced the first severe pain in his chest. At the hospital, doctors concluded that it was intussusception, an intestinal disorder. Finally, in the spring of 2021, he had heart burn for two straight weeks — or so he thought. The pain became so great in his upper body that he had cold sweats and couldn’t sleep.
Classic signs of a heart attack — but Marc just didn’t realize it because no physician had ever told him he had heart trouble. Then, one early morning, he felt a sensation he’d never felt before. “I thought to myself, ‘That was a heart attack.’”
He called 911, but when he described what he felt, the EMTs told him he was suffering from fatigue or perhaps the flu.
His parents save the day — and his life
Fortunately, Marc had already called his parents, who live four minutes away. They drove over and insisted he let them take him to the UC Davis Medical Center Emergency Department.
Less than 20 minutes later, he was getting a stent in his heart because it was only receiving “a ridiculously tiny amount of blood flow” from his constricted vessels. The stent was put in one of the main coronary arteries, but it was only a temporary fix. The cardiologist on call, Jeffrey Southard, knew he needed more, but in that moment, one was all his frail condition could handle. Soon afterward, Marc’s new cardiologist, Garrett Wong, performed a second procedure that was also a temporary fix.
“It’s my second home. Everyone knows me, even the transport personnel. Everyone there is so good, so kind, so welcoming. The care there is special.”
Out of imminent danger, but not out of the woods
That fall, Marc was finally strong enough to have the major procedure he needed. It required Dr. Wong and another surgeon each going into a different insertion point and meeting from opposite directions at the same point in the coronary artery. “They cleaned it out extensively,” says Marc, “and returned the majority of the function to my heart.”
They even showed him a video of his heart’s activity before and after the procedure. “In that area of my heart, you could see almost no activity. Then after the procedure, it was like wow! Look at all those vessels full of blood! It was crazy.”
Marc began rehab, getting stronger and filling out his underweight frame. Then suddenly, in May of 2022, his weight began to plunge and he began experiencing shortness of breath. Calmly, Marc cleaned his house, let his parents know, and drove himself to the hospital. Dr. Wong performed another procedure, then another in June and another in July. Since then, Marc’s heart has continued to get stronger.
Nine stents down, three to go
Unfortunately, Marc’s artery condition isn’t isolated to his heart. Major blood vessels to his left leg – known as the iliac and femoral arteries — were soon completely blocked. UC Davis Health vascular surgeon Mimmie Kwong investigated with an angiogram X-ray procedure in September 2022, and realized that a more complex technique would be needed. In October, the vascular surgery team operated to clean out his femoral artery. During the surgery, the team also utilized a new technique that applies sound waves to break up blockages. In Marc’s case, this helped open up his iliac artery blockages as well, allowing his team to put in three more stents to fully open blood flow to his left leg. On last check, the flow had completely normalized, and Marc has been walking well.
For the record, that’s seven procedures and 12 stents. Marc’s been in rehab for over eight months, improving his cardio conditioning and lifting weights. Thanks to his care, Marc says he’s feeling better than he has in years. “Right now, I’m at a special moment where I feel like I’m really, really about to make a big rebound.”
Despite spending so much time at UC Davis Health facilities, Marc isn’t tired of the health system one bit. Quite the opposite.
The difference between life and death: UC Davis Health
“It’s my second home,” he says. “Everyone knows me, even the transport personnel. Everyone there is so good, so kind, so welcoming. The care there is special. I’m even going to switch my primary care physician to an internist in the same building as Drs. Wong and Kwong and the rehab facility. That way, everything is in one place.”
A decade ago, Marc lost his brother to heart disease. He was only 47. “It’s been a difficult journey for my family. But the difference is that my brother didn’t have UC Davis Health. I do.”