Turning a Failed Stress Test into Positive Changes: Steve’s Story

Steve Torres exercising

Steve Torres has always lived life to the fullest. A self-described big personality with an easy smile and a gift for conversation, Torres and his wife Barb moved to mid-Missouri from Los Gatos, California, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic to be closer to their son Matt’s family and two granddaughters.

When he has time to be away from his job as a project executive at Coil Construction, Torres loves spending time with his grandkids, who call him ‘Zuba.’ Those gatherings usually feature barbecue, inspired by the Torres’ California roots and their new Missouri home.

During the summer of 2022, their barbecue plans were put on hold when Torres started experiencing chest pain. He went to his doctor, who asked him to take a stress test to evaluate whether his heart was the source of the discomfort. An otherwise healthy man in his early 60s, Torres didn’t know what to expect when his doctor said he’d failed the stress test.

“I said, ‘OK, you want me to take another one?’” Torres said. “He said, ‘No, we’re going to do an angiogram.’ So I lay down to do it, and when I woke up, my wife was standing there crying and my son was there, and he wasn’t there when it started. It was like a slow-motion car crash.”

Torres’ doctor told him the angiogram — a test to see how well blood flows into and out of the heart — revealed he had three arterial blockages of greater than 70%. To avoid heart conditions like coronary artery disease and heart attack, Torres had stents placed to keep his arteries open.

But that was one step in the process of getting Torres back in good health. He also needed lifestyle changes to prevent further heart issues and was referred to MU Health Care’s Pritikin Intensive Cardiac Rehab (ICR). Designed for patient success, the 12-week Pritikin ICR program uses three weekly exercise sessions in conjunction with classes focused on exercise, nutrition and mental coaching in group and individual settings.

Cooking classes are led by Paula Vandelicht, a registered dietitian and diabetes educator, and an experienced cook.

“For many of our patients this is their first major heart event, and that was the case for Mr. Torres,” Vandelicht said. “He was a little overwhelmed the first week because of all the changes he was trying to make, but he brought his wife to the first consultation meeting so they could both make the changes at home.”

After his first session in September, Torres said he cried in his truck on the way home. This was the first major health scare in his life, but he also didn’t want to give up on the things he loved eating.

Vandelicht helped Torres understand the program’s goal was to make smarter choices about portion size, substitute when appropriate and eat less of some things. It was about progress, not perfection.

“My favorite part of this job is getting to know the patients,” Vandelicht said. “Helping them with figuring out what to eat at a birthday coming up or around the holidays, helping make those day-to-day changes. It’s all about progress over time, and his was pretty amazing.”

After the first week, Torres was fully committed to Pritikin. He loved the exercise component of the program and working with the physical therapists, and befriended other patients and the staff alike, offering positive encouragement or a laugh at every turn. Torres also suggested the staff change around the order of new patients’ first class, so they didn’t have the same experience he did.

“He was always supportive and positive, always had great suggestions and encouraged new patients,” Vandelicht said. “He was a joy to work with.”

Torres has come a long way from sneaking a handful of jellybeans when Barb wasn’t in the room, stopping at Starbucks every morning and drinking a soda with lunch. And when he takes his wife out to eat, the idea of ordering the biggest steak on the menu is now off-putting, not enticing.

Among all the changes he’s made and lessons he’s learned, perhaps the most surprising to Torres was the amount of sodium present in most pre-made barbecue rubs. But with the help of his family, he found low-sodium alternatives that taste just as good. There’s no going back, and Torres is looking forward to many more barbecues with his granddaughters.

“I was scared to death for a month after the angiogram, because it was the first time I felt my mortality,” Torres said. “Stuff like cardiac rehab, people don’t know about it until they need it, but they should know that this is part of what a health system like MU Health Care does. It’s part of the longer game, and the people here are medical professionals who are super good at what they do. Coming from the Bay Area where there’s world-class medical care, I don’t think I would have gotten better treatment there than I did here.”

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