Hidden Epidemic: Heart Disease in America
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Watching: The Hidden Epidemic - Heart Disease In America

Chapter 3: When Hearts Fail Slowly [6:55]

The disease can tighten its grip undetected for years, but once congestive heart failure sets in, the body slowly suffocates.

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Transcript: Chapter 3 - When Hearts Fail Slowly

The disease can tighten its grip undetected for years, but once congestive heart failure sets in, the body slowly suffocates.

NARRATOR: One of the most frightening realities of heart disease is that it can hide silently for decades without any symptoms at all.

JOANN WILLIAMS: He's always been larger than life in everything. You know, he's always the life of he party. You know, he walks in a room, he takes a room over, he's got that kind of a personality. When Tom Brokaw wrote the book The Greatest Generation he left one person out, and that was my dad

JOANN WILLIAMS: He was in D-Day and Wave One of D-Day. He was in Palermo Bay. He was in Africa, in North Africa, on all of these major invasions. And you think to make it through one is a miracle, but then to make it through every one of those was amazing, absolutely amazing.

NARRATOR: Tom Williams was born and grew up in Massachusetts. After the war he settled down with a girl named Ann. They had three children and a happy, busy life.

JOANN WILLIAMS: One of the other two loves of his life, next to cars, and my mother, and... I think he's always had horses, or we've always had horses growing up. Um, I think I was on a horse before I could walk.

FRED WILLIAMS: For the longest time when were growing up as kids we actually thought that there were Indians in the Blue Hill Mountains. And he would go off on his horse on Sunday mornings, and he would come back with a roast beef, all right? And he would tell us that he went up to the hills where the Indians were in the Blue Hills and trade it, ok, to get us a roast beef for Sunday dinner. And he actually would bring back a roast beef. Well he'd ride down to the market, down to the Milton market, get it from the butcher and then bring it home, you know? It was the funniest thing.

DR. GILBERT MUDGE: In the middle and late part of 2005, Tom began to experience progressive fatigue. At that point, a simple echocardiogram revealed that there had been profound changes in the function of his heart. He had severe coronary disease, and his heart had been significantly damaged.

TOM WILLIAMS: I look terrible, felt terrible, lost my appetite, lost probably 22, 23, 24 pounds, my leg started to swell up. It's quite a... quite a change.

NARRATOR: All his life Tom has been the picture of health. He never has any signs of heart disease until it was so serious that it was untreatable.

DR. GILBERT MUDGE: It's common that patients will present with a very advanced disease, and they've never really known they've had coronary artery disease in the past. The body is capable of compensating over prolonged periods of time to basically make up for compromised function.

NARRATOR: Tom suffers from congestive heart failure, a progressive and fatal condition.

DR. PETER LIBBY: People think of heart failure as sudden death, but what we mean by heart failure is a weakening of the heart muscle so that it can't pump the blood forward. Fluid then backs up into the lungs making it very difficult for people to breathe. Heart failure really is a form of chronic suffocation that can last for years and go in a spiraling downward course.

NARRATOR: Congestive heart failure is often the last stage of disease for patients who've survived heart attacks or other damage to their hearts. In Tom's case, his coronary arteries have been destroyed by a lifetime of smoking. His heart can't pump enough blood to his organs for them to function, and they are starting to shutdown

MICHAEL WILLIAMS: I said 'Dad, you were being selfish when you didn't quit smoking,' and that's one thing that gets me a little upset. Because of that, it's going to artificially limit the time he has with us here on, you know, in the present.

NARRATOR: Every day Tom gets a little bit weaker.

ANN WILLIAMS: I think that's the hardest thing for him. Because he's always been so active. He's like, someone called him the Energizer bunny.

MICHAEL WILLIAMS: It's sort of like reality sets in. I know dad's got heart disease. It's progressive, it's not going to reverse itself.

MICHAEL WILLIAMS: And you have to accept and confront your own mortality because you're seeing it through your father.

DR. GILBERT MUDGE: We don't have any expectation now of getting Tom back on a horse, or getting him back to his golf game. Tom, by sheer numbers alone, has outlived the statistics.

TOM WILLIAMS: You know just a matter of time. It's been a great ride, I wish to hell it could go on longer.

ANN WILLIAMS: If he's going to die, I hope it isn't a long, drawn-out thing. I hope that I'll stay healthy and be able to take care of him.

JOANN WILLIAMS: I think he's going to want to go peacefully. I have a feeling he'll tell us. In his own way he'll tell us when he's ready. I don't think he's quite ready yet.

SLATE: Tom Williams died at home, his family around him, four months later.

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