Atherosclerosis - this silent killer can strike without warning

Chris Hewgill from Nambucca,northern NSW, discovered just how dangerous atherosclerosis is when he was hit out of the blue with a heart attack while surfing. 

But new research by the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute is developing a way to identify the unstable plaques at risk of rupturing and causing a heart attack.

Chris’ story: “This is it.”

It was a special day. Chris had just turned 60. He and a mate had driven from their home in Nambucca Heads down to the NSW Central Coast for a day of surfing.

Chris had followed the waves well down the beach away from his mate, when he was suddenly thrown from his board, which came down and struck him on the head and shoulder.

Chris was knocked out.

He woke up underwater, with a pain in his chest that hit him like a freight train.

He thought he was dying – and he was. He was having a heart attack.

Chris was tossed around by the waves as he struggled to shore, blacking out frequently. It took 15 long minutes for him to get there. 

Then he literally crawled up the beach towards the Surf Lifesavers.

The next day in hospital, he watched with horror as the ‘beep, beep, beep’ of his heart monitor turned to one continuous sound, and the regular peaks and troughs on his monitor flatlined.

The world became silent, and the last thing he remembers is thinking, “This is it”.

Identifying and treating atherosclerosis before it kills

Atherosclerosis is a build-up of fatty deposits, cholesterol and plaque on the inside of the arteries.

In a major research advance, Professor Roland Stocker and his team at the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute are a huge step closer to identifying unstable plaques. These types of plaques are prone to rupture, and this can cause a heart attack. 

Currently, there is no routine, non-invasive procedure available to determine which plaques are unstable and therefore likely to cause a heart attack. Watch the 96 seconds video below to learn more about our team's amazing breakthrough.

But our scientists at the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute are working on a special probe used in conjunction with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to detect the dangerous plaque so that it can be treated.

And what’s even more exciting is Professor Stocker’s laboratory has identified a possible way to stabilise this dangerous type of plaque before a heart attack strikes.

Chris Hewgill thought he was fit and well. He had no symptoms of pending heart trouble.

Chris with family | Atherosclerosis | Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute

He survived, but not without two years of intensive recovery and a complete lifestyle change.

Most people are not so lucky. That’s why the next stage of this research is so important.

Learn more about Professor Stocker's groundbreaking research

Learn more about atherosclerosis