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On a cold Friday night in March, Ken Rome, 57, went on a date with his wife of 36 years, his high school sweetheart Sharon. They ate at Capital Grille before seeing a play.
He felt fine that night. They joked and laughed and had a wonderful time together. That was their last date.
Two days later, Ken died of a dangerous heart condition called vulnerable plaque.
‘I couldn’t believe my ears’
When Sharon recounts the events leading up to Ken’s death, there are no warning signs that anything was out of the ordinary. The day after their date, Sharon traveled to Milwaukee to visit her mom. Ken dropped her off at the airport, kissed her goodbye, and asked her to call him when she landed.
When she arrived, she called him, they talked for a few minutes, and she says “he sounded fine, absolutely fine.”
The next call she received was from her son, Aaron, who was hysterical. He said, “Mom, you need to come home. Dad is dead.”
Aaron explained that he had found his dad at the foot of the treadmill with the treadmill still running.
“I made him repeat it several times because I couldn’t believe my ears,” Sharon says.
Her husband was the picture of good health. He ran every day. He competed in triathlons. How could this happen?!
Making sense of it all
What happened is that Ken had vulnerable plaque, a collection of white blood cells and lipids that ruptured while he was running, resulting in a blood clot and fatal heart attack.
When Ken died, not only did Sharon lose her best friend and soul mate, “a loving, supportive dad and grandpa” and “the life of any party,” she lost a sense of peace.
A healthy 57-year-old dying of a heart attack? It didn’t make sense.
“His cardiologist, Dr. Robert Hauser with the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation/Abbott Heart Hospital said all of Ken’s tests were normal,” she says.
She wanted answers.
Dr. Hauser’s colleague, Dr. Rob Schwartz, was doing a study to see if intense and prolonged exercise can cause vascular injury. Maybe, Sharon thought, Dr. Schwartz could shed some light on her husband’s death.
In 2008, the Ken Rome Research Foundation was formed, with proceeds from an annual Boston Scientific-sponsored 5K Walk/Run (Ken worked in the cardiac pacing division of Boston Scientific for 25 years) going to the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation and Dr. Schwartz’s study. Since then, the Foundation has raised more than $80,000, and Dr. Schwartz’s work isn’t done yet. He is proposing a study to compare those who exercise moderately with those who exercise intensely, then drawing correlations between risk factors and coronary artery status.
Exercise, in general, is very good for heart health. The benefits far outweigh the risks. If you exercise excessively and your heart occasionally races, make an appointment with your doctor. If you “feel funny,” trust your instincts.
Dr. Schwartz is chairing the American Heart Association’s annual Heart & Stroke Gala on Dec. 8, 2012 with the goal to raise $1 million for heart and stroke research. Last year, the American Heart Association granted over $8 million to 45 different research projects in Minnesota. Sharon will be sharing her story at the Gala.
Sharon’s life forever changed on that fateful day in March, but she has weathered the storm thanks to the love and support of her family (including four beautiful grandchildren), her friends, a busy social life, and exercise.
“Ken was happy and positive and treated everyone with kindness, and that is how I choose to live life,” Sharon says. “His legacy lives on through me.”
Sharon will be sharing her story at this year’s Heart & Stroke Gala, Dec. 8, at the Hilton Minneapolis.