This is an important day for 55-year-old Steve Irigoyen. As he walks into his doctor’s office, he greets the doctor and they exchange a handshake and warm hello. It’s time for Steve’s medical checkup after a series of near fatal heart attacks. He had his first attack at age 39 and almost died. Steve is a classic example of struggle, strength, and survival, traits often described as the American Spirit.
Steve’s story is powerful and from the heart. Every three months, he visits the doctor he gratefully credits with saving his life through surgery and innovative technology. If not for “Dr. A,” cardiologist Ahmad Alturjuman, Steve firmly believes he would have died long ago. “I’m feeling great and I’m back at the gym again. After the procedure it’s like a whole new life again,” he declares.
But Steve’s life almost ended not that long ago. He had a busy and sometimes stressful career in the grocery business, and he was a single father to a young son named Tristan. Like many hard-working Americans, he took care of everything and everyone except himself.
Steve says, “I’ve had 10 heart attacks and two bypass surgeries. I’ve had two strokes, have 21 stents in my heart, and I have this device in me that I cannot even pronounce. I’ve had nurses call me the Tin Man and Full Metal Jacket.” When asked, “How are you still alive? What do you attribute that to?” he replies, “Perseverance, good living and a great doctor – always gotta have that good doctor.”
Dr. Alturjuman has been practicing interventional cardiology for about 10 years, and he specializes in heart rhythm disorders. Affiliated with Inland Valley and Loma Linda Medical Centers and the Heart Care Institute at Riverside Community Hospital, Dr. Alturjuman says heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S. Roughly 600,000 Americans die of heart disease annually, which equates to nearly 25 percent of all U.S. deaths. That’s more than cancer, auto accidents, fires, Alzheimer’s disease, and gunshots put together! Dr. A believes it doesn’t have to be that way and says people are not as active as they should be. Both he and the American Heart Association recommend at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity a minimum of five days a week.
Steve Irigoyen sought out Dr. A after being told a heart transplant was in his future. He was surprised to learn that, in his case, genetics played a major role.
“Heart disease – they say it’s in my genes. And I believe that, but I’ve overcome it, and each day I live life to the fullest because you’ve gotta have those positive thoughts every day,” he says.
Steve’s condition can best be explained as the left side of the heart isn’t always in sync with the right side, meaning his heart beats abnormally, which may reduce how well the lower chambers function. Dr. A implanted a small pacemaker-type device beneath the skin just under the collarbone which helps the heart pump and relax. Three wire leads can first sense a dangerous arrhythmia and then deliver a pulse or small shock to correct the rhythm back to normal. The whole process is known as Cardiac Resynchronization Therapy.
Motivation, positive thinking, and strong faith is what Steve believes made the difference between life and death for him. “And my doctor, he’s my guardian angel,” he says. When asked if there was ever a time when he thought survival wasn’t an option, he responds, “Many a time. I remember one time in the hospital I had my family come say goodbye to me three times, and I remember my first heart attack like it was yesterday. I’m not afraid to die, but I have a lot to live for. I have a son – he’s 22 years old and he’s been through a lot. Tristan is in his last year of college. He’s my pride and joy and the reason I get going each day.”
Dr. Alturjuman is very modest when it comes to accolades from his patients. However, he does admit it’s very rewarding to step into a medical waiting room and see all the family members who are grateful and happy their significant other has shown improvement and is able to enjoy life again. He says, “In Steven’s case he was able to attend his son’s graduation, and that was very important to him and to me as his physician.”
Because of his health struggles, Steve wants to help others with heart disease learn-to-live and is a true representation of the American Spirit! He advocates for heart-healthy policies like nutritious school meals and funding for medical breakthroughs, such as the one that saved his life.
Steve Irigoyen’s message to others is straight from the heart: “You only get one life – just one. Live your life to the fullest and make all your dreams come true, because my dreams are coming true now!”