Wally and Gerry Montgomery are Leading a Walk for a Cause That’s Close to Their Hearts

You know how the saying goes. You can talk the talk, but can you walk the walk?

Well, retired physician Dr. Wally Montgomery and City Commissioner Gerry Montgomery are talking AND walking for the American Heart Association.

As co-chairs of McCracken County’s American Heart Association Walk on May 22 at Noble Park, Wally and Gerry Montgomery are walking for their hearts’ sake and talking about their personal experiences for the sake of others.

It’s a story that needs to be shared. Many are surprised to learn that 1 in 2.4 women will die this year from heart disease compared with 1 in 29 of breast cancer. Heart disease is the #1 killer of all Americans (men, women and children) and accounts for 44% of all deaths in McCracken County.

And few know the ravages of heart disease better than the Montgomery’s.

For Dr. Montgomery it began with a lengthy family history of heart disease, one of the disease’s signif- icant risk factors. It ended in open heart surgery; a procedure which, thankfully, was highly successful and had lifestyle ramifi- cations which continue to the present.

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“After my retirement in 2000, I began noticing that I tired quicker than ever before and that I was frequently short of breath. So at Gerry’s urging, I consulted Dr. Jim Gwinn, had an echo, and on the day of my test, I found myself in the hospital preparing to have open heart surgery,” Dr. Montgomery remem- bers. “I had one major occlusion; everything else was clear, but the one clogged vessel was the most vital one, so there was no waiting to be done. It was a clear-cut decision.”

Dr. Montgomery says he felt better almost immediately after the surgery. And he’s been feeling better ever since. “My blood pressure is good, my cholesterol is where it needs to be, and I’m working very hard to control my diet and exercise in a heart- healthy way,” says the 67-year-old surgeon who has now traded in his white coat for a warm-up suit which he wears to his daily 2-4 mile treadmill trek. “I think medicine is taking a turn for the better by emphasizing prevention rather than intervention. When I was in medical school, we rarely focused on helping people to avoid disease; we were so focused on healing. Now that’s not a bad thing obviously, but it’s so much better to avoid disease than to try and cure it.”

Now as we all know, stress can also be a factor with regard to heart disease. And Dr. Montgomery says his wife, Gerry, didn’t help his stress level any when her heart began to fail a couple of years ago.

Gerry Montgomery’s recent head-on with heart problems was her third encounter with open heart surgery. “My first came in 1984 when I was 46 years old. Doctors concluded that my mitral valve wasn’t working and there was discussion that I might have actually had rheumatic fever when I was child which weakened the valve in my heart,” Gerry relates. So a first surgery replaced the valve, but also brought on two episodes of heart failure during recovery putting Gerry on the defensive during the months and years ahead.

A serious infection occurred in 1992 after a minor surgery, which once again weakened Gerry’s heart health. “It took me two days to finish cooking Thanksgiving dinner,” Gerry says. “When Evelyn {her daughter} realized that I had to sit down every few minutes in between almost any effort at all, she insisted that I see my cardiologist again.”

So once again, Gerry found herself undergoing surgery to replace the worn-out valve and to restore her heart to a more highly functioning capacity. But the repair was somewhat short-lived. Only a few years later, Gerry once again would find herself unable to exercise, short of breath, and gaining unhealthy weight. But this time the diagnosis was deadly serious.

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“By the time I realized that my heart was not working the way it should, I was in very serious condition,” Gerry remembers with dramatic clarity. “By the time we left the doctor’s office in Paducah headed for St. Thomas, there were those who thought I might not make it to the hospital. I don’t really remember too much after that until I woke up from surgery.” A surgery which Dr. Montgomery andvhis children had to beg a valve replacement specialist to do.

“He really didn’t want to perform the operation,” Dr. Montgomery adds. “She was in such a weakened state and the surgery was long and complex. We literally trapped him when he stepped off an elevator at the hospital and begged him to do whatever he could. We knew she would die if we did nothing. He warned us that there was every indication that she might not make it through the surgery.”

After a six-hour surgery and many long weeks in the cardiac intensive care unit, Gerry Montgomery defied all odds and grad- ually opened her eyes and her heart to new possibilities. With tears in her eyes and her husband’s hand over hers, she says that she is convinced there was more here for her to do. “It simply wasn’t my time to go,” she believes. “And I don’t for one minute discount the many, many people who were praying for me.”

Prior to a recent retreat for city commissioners, Gerry recom- mended that each member of the group read the best-selling book, The Present by Spencer Johnson. “It reminds us that every day is a gift and that we need to live each day as such.”

44% of all deaths in McCracken County are due to heart disease.

“I believe the Heart Walk is good for our health, but it’s also good for awareness of how we all need to change the way we look at regular exercise. It’s something we should be doing every day.” —Dr. Wally Montgomery