In his late 20s, John Cruz worked in a Brooklyn warehouse, lifting heavy boxes, and enjoyed playing football with his nephews in the local park.
Over the next few years, he was hampered by asthma and chest pains—early signs of HCM. Finally doctors at Methodist Hospital discovered an irregular heartbeat and gave John a pacemaker.
When John was 37, he needed an implantable defibrillator to deliver a shock to his heart, when necessary and prevent sudden cardiac death.
In 2011, John's cardiologist sent him to the Columbia Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy (HCM) Center to consult with Dr. Mathew Maurer and Dr. Hiroo Takayama. "They immediately made me feel comfortable. They said I probably needed a myectomy—a surgery to cut away the damaged muscle in my heart—but first they wanted to do some tests."
John's first echocardiogram indicated that he needed surgery, but a second test indicated that his heart was still functioning well enough.
"To find out why I had these two different readings, Dr. Maurer gave me a modified stress test," John recalls. "He told me to just do was much as I comfortably could on the treadmill—I didn't even last 10 minutes—then to just sit down."
In this way, Dr. Maurer solved the medical mystery. When John was inactive, the gradient between his left ventricular and aortic pressure was between 15 and 20. But once he started to move, it shot up to greater than 80 mmHg.
"Dr. Maurer explained that my left ventricle closed at the top because of the thickness of the heart muscle. That meant I needed the surgery."
Dr. Takayama explained the procedure and told John what to expect post-op. When it was over, John said, "I was so relieved and so happy to be alive. I wasn't in as much pain as I expected to be."
Soon John's asthma symptoms also began to subside. "They turned out to be heart related—as Dr. Maurer predicted. I used to go ER for my asthma all the time, but I got a bonus from this surgery," John says, "It sure feels good to breathe!"
John also has high praise for the team at the HCM Center. "Everyone was so caring, from the doctors and the nurses to the man who cleaned my room. Dr. Takayama and Dr. Maurer came to see me everyday and reminded me to move. Their advice: Take little five minute walks, then gradually go up to 10 and then 15 minutes. You've got to get your heart used to pumping. They told me it would take three months to recover, and they were right."
Since his discharge, John has increased the distance he can walk each day. He now has the energy to paint and draw, and walk his dog. And today he can play catch with his nephews and push his nieces on a swing.
"At 42, I got a second chance," he says. "And I feel like I'm just getting better and better every day."