A $30 smartwatch, a newer procedure that uses artificial intelligence to detect heart disease and swift teamwork by her physicians may have saved Donna Finnegan’s heart.

Dr. Jack Xu

She can’t explain the intricacies of the heart screening that led to quintuple bypass surgery to open five blocked arteries. But Dr. Jack Xu, her cardiologist with Novant Health Cardiology – Kimel Park Main in Winston-Salem can explain CT-FFR so that a layperson will appreciate.

We’ll let Finnegan, 56, of Winston-Salem, get to the bottom line: “I know that I’m going to be here a lot longer,” she said, thanks to the test that contributed to the quality and length of her life.

Finnegan has learned to deal with challenges. She was a full-time substitute teacher until 2007 when she was seriously injured after someone rear-ended her at a stop light. “He kind of destroyed my world when he hit me,” she said. “I don’t let it get me down. If I did, I’d cry a lot.”

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Despite constant pain, she stayed as busy as she could. She even bought a ukelele. “I figured what the heck,” she said. Another purchase last summer set this story in motion.

Twelve years ago, Finnegan made the healthy decision to quit smoking. She had been a smoker since age 10 and was smoking a pack or more per day. Last summer, Finnegan made another healthy decision – she bought a new smartwatch off the Internet for $30. She started using it to check her vitals, including blood pressure and glucose level. That’s when she noticed her heart rate was higher than the normal rate of 60 to 100 beats per minute for someone her age, even when she was sitting. She had no pain nor other symptoms.

Dr. James Spencer

In September 2023 she took her concerns to Dr. James Spencer of Novant Health Forsyth Family Medicine in Winston-Salem. He’s been her primary care physician for 25 years. Finnegan said he provides the kind of personal care that includes asking about her two sons and three grandchildren during the examination. “He’s held my hand through a lot,” she said.

The journey to quintuple bypass surgery had begun.

Top scores for safety in NC

Novant Health received the most ‘As’ for patient safety in North Carolina from The Leapfrog Group. With a focus on safety, quality and patient experience, the national, industry-leading nonprofit, evaluates and assigns letter grades ranging from A to F to hospitals across the country. Novant Health’s hospitals with “A” grades outperform 70% of hospitals nationwide for safety and quality.

Spencer examined Finnegan and immediately sent her to Xu, the cardiologist. He has been using CT-FFR for two years. “It changes the landscape of how we diagnose heart disease,” he says, explaining the procedure.

The acronym stands for Computed Tomography-Fractional Flow Reserve. CT-FFR is an extra layer of analysis that can be done when your doctor has a concern about blockage. It uses AI and other analyses to give a better idea of how significant blockages are.

First a coronary CT scan looks for blockages. This involves an IV containing dye. If blockage is detected, HeartFlow technology makes a digital, color-coded 3D model of the coronary arteries. With the information, doctors plot the course of treatment. In Finnegan’s case, that was bypass surgery within days.

“I blinked,” she said, “and I was in the operating room.” And here’s why: the test had uncovered multivessel coronary artery disease. Left untreated, it could have resulted in a heart attack or even been fatal, Xu said.

Dr. David Duncan

The surgery was performed by Dr. David Duncan of Novant Health Cardiothoracic Surgeons in Winston-Salem. Five days later, she was discharged. “I didn’t want to come home,” she says. “They spoiled me.”

Finnegan completed 12 weeks of cardiac rehabilitation and enjoyed it so much she’s a regular now at Novant Health Forsyth Heath & Wellness. She sees Xu (pronounced shu) every three months. “We have a great relationship,” she said. “He wants to know everything about how I’m doing.”

She has a large scar on her chest and isn’t afraid to show it. “I want people to ask me about it,” Finnegan said, “so I can tell them what they need to do, especially if they’re a smoker.”

After surgery, Finnegan has returned to a contented life of what she calls “piddling.” She’s determined to learn to play that ukelele. Besides unblocked arteries, a scar, more energy and greater peace of mind, there’s something else new in her life.

She bought another smartwatch. “This one’s fancier,” she said.

The test that can save your life

  • CT-FFR stands for Computed Tomography-Fractional Flow Reserve. It uses artificial intelligence to help provide 3D images of the heart, where blockages are located. It is less invasive than heart catheterization because it uses an IV rather than a catheter inserted into the arteries. It is used for patients like Finnegan who are experiencing symptoms of heart disease. It is also used for patients with risk factors such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, tobacco use, diabetes and family history of heart disease.
  • Experiencing chest pain, shortness of breath, nausea, indigestion or fatigue? Consult your primary care provider. In an emergency, call 911.
  • Why is CT-FFR so vital? According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. One person dies every 33 seconds in the United States from cardiovascular disease.