By Rubin E. Grant
Carlton Baker traveled from Birmingham to New Mexico in the fall to do some bow hunting for elk, just as he has done for a number of years.
When he landed an elk, he took a picture and sent it to his doctor and friend, James Michael Parks.
Parks, a cardiologist and chairman of cardiology at Ascension St. Vincent’s Hospital, is one of the reasons Baker is healthy enough to still go bow hunting at the age of 82.
For more than a decade, Parks has performed multiple life-saving heart procedures on Baker.
Baker’s extensive family history of heart disease led him to seek medical care from a cardiologist at an early age. It was paramount in keeping him alive.
“He was pro-active,” Parks said. “That he can still go elk hunting without any issues is an example of how far the technology has come in treating heart disease. He’s doing great.”
Baker, a retired executive from BellSouth who lives in Vestavia Hills, firmly believes others should know their family medical history and seek early intervention because of the advances in treating cardiovascular disease. He wants to draw attention to his story since February is Heart Health Awareness Month.
Discovering His History
BellSouth transferred Baker from Texas to Alabama in 1980, when he was 40. The move eventually led him to making heart care a priority.
“I grew up in an era when you didn’t go to the doctor unless you were sick,” Baker said. “If you had a physical, it was usually because of sports in school and it was pretty cursory.”
But as an executive with BellSouth, Baker was required to take a physical every year. He discovered he had high blood pressure and some cholesterol issues, but he didn’t think that was unusual because of his work schedule.
“During those days, you didn’t think much about heart disease,” Baker said. “You mainly just controlled your high blood pressure and cholesterol. I had no trouble in my 40s and 50s and I stayed active, hunting and fishing.”
When his primary care physician, Dr. Joseph Welden Jr., introduced him to Parks, Baker was asked about his family history. He investigated and was alarmed by his medical hereditary. On his father’s side, there were seven boys and four died of heart disease before they turned 60. One of his grandmothers died at 64 because of heart disease.
“That was a wake-up call for me,” Baker said. “I started taking it seriously even though I didn’t have any heart problems.”
Baker was routinely checked and at first there wasn’t any need for more invasive intervention, but once he began seeing Parks regularly, he began undergoing stress tests as well as an electrocardiogram, commonly called an EKG. Most of the time he did well, until 2008, when it was discovered he had a calcium buildup in his coronary arteries that needed to be monitored.
In 2010, he failed a stress test and had to do a coronary angiogram, a procedure that uses X-ray imaging to see the heart’s blood vessels. It showed that Baker needed to have bypass surgery, so he had a bypass, an aortic value replaced and a pacemaker surgically implanted. He remained in the hospital for four or five days.
In 2019, he underwent a transcatheter aortic valve replacement, called a TAVR, had the pacemaker replaced and received stents, which are used in angioplasty procedures.
The TAVR is a minimally invasive procedure in which a new valve is inserted without removing the old, damaged valve. The new valve is placed inside the diseased valve.
“There have been a lot of changes made in treating heart disease since I started doing this in the 1980s,” Parks said. “People never used to be able to live into their 80s after being diagnosed with cardiovascular disease. But now with the statin drugs, stents and TAVR, they can return to living a normal life.”
A TAVR doesn’t require a lengthen recovery because it is done with a scope. “You have the TAVR one day and go home the next,” Baker said.
The importance of early intervention when it comes to cardiovascular disease hit home in a heartbreaking way for Baker in the fall when his son-in-law in Houston died suddenly of a heart attack, leaving behind a wife and three teenage children.
“He had high blood pressure and cholesterol issues, but I don’t know if he knew his family history,” Baker said. “He lived an active life, but he didn’t feel he needed to get the work-ups. He didn’t have any serious issues until it was too late.
“If I can encourage one person to get checked regularly for heart disease, my story would be worth it because there’s so much that can be done to head it off.”
In 2021, Baker had to have another stent procedure and now has eight stents. But he continues to do well and continues to hunt as well as spend time with his wife of almost 60 years, Lauretta, his three children and eight grandchildren.
“I am blessed to still go fishing and hunting and be outdoors and spend time with my children and grandchildren,” Baker said. “They keep us going.”