U.S. OLYMPIC swimmer Michael Phelps captured global attention this week by winning more medals than anyone in history.
While the 27-year-old Phelps celebrated his victories, the memory of Norwegian swimmer Alexander Dale Oen remained fresh on the minds of the world’s best athletes.
The elite swimming community is a close-knit group. No matter where in the world you come from, they all support, encourage and cheer for each other. Swimming is one of the most physically demanding sports and requires a lot of sacrifices in the interest of becoming the best. Because of their shared love of the sport, elite swimmers around the world are like family and they all cheered when Michael Phelps won and they mourned when Alexander Dale Oen died.
Four months ago, 26-year-old swimming champion Alexander Dale Oen was found unconscious in his hotel bathroom after having suffered a heart attack. Dale Oen, who carried Norway's hopes for London Olympic gold on his broad shoulders, was found collapsed on his bathroom floor by his teammates and pronounced dead shortly afterward.
Dale Oen did not abuse alcohol. He did not take drugs. His death was a shock to international swimming and to Norway. He won the 100m breaststroke at the World Championships in Shanghai last summer, only three days after a madman had killed 77 people in Oslo. On the podium, Dale Oen, visibly moved, pointed to the flag of Norway on his cap and spoke of the need for his nation to stay united and strong. He dedicated his gold medal to the madman’s victims who included children from a summer camp. In the process he became a national hero back home.
Medical autopsy revealed Dale Oen had suffered from severe coronary artery atherosclerosis. All three major arteries in Dale Oen's heart were extremely narrowed, up to 90 percent, because of the buildup of plaque, said Shannon Mackey-Bojack, medical director of the Jesse Edwards Registry of Cardio Vascular Disease in St. Paul, Minn.
Life-threatening coronary artery plaque buildup is detected through an angiogram, but few persons under the age of 50 years are checked. Heart disease like this is not something you routinely look for in someone who is 26 years old, especially if they are a world class Olympic swimmer.
The common risk factors for heart disease are obesity, poor diet, lack of exercise, smoking, and family history. The latter risk is the only one that might apply to Dale Oen since he did have a grandfather who died suddenly at age 42 of unknown causes. Such tragic familial phenomena may be classified as sudden cardiac death and are likely due to a hereditary disease that causes premature atherosclerosis. Families with loved ones who died mysteriously under the age of 50 should have regular heart checks as soon as possible.
Thankfully, there are precious few 26-year-old champion swimmers who will be killed by a heart disease they never knew they had. On Guam, very often the mystery is not why a person dies so young of heart disease, but why they did not quit smoking, control their blood pressure, or treat their diabetes. If any solace exists to the tragedy of heart disease, it is that very often you can control your risk.
Over the next month, heart specialists from Modesto, Calif., will return to Guam to join with local doctors in combating heart disease on our island. With their expertise, cardiac angiograms will again be available at the Guam Memorial Hospital. Some unfortunate people with life-threatening severe coronary artery disease will be found.
This September, Guam-grown cardiovascular surgeon Noel Concepcion, MD, will return to perform open heart surgery at GMH to repair the broken hearts of a few of the neediest patients. The more fortunate people will be those who learn to control their cardiac risks and treat their hearts like a champion.