Missouri man turns heart disease diagnosis into public service message

By Kellie B. Gormly, American Heart Association News

Coronary artery disease and throat cancer survivor Don Young. (Photo courtesy of Don Young)
Coronary artery disease and throat cancer survivor Don Young. (Photo courtesy of Don Young)

Don Young already had been through an excruciating ordeal with throat cancer that included removal of his larynx, multiple hospitalizations and a doctor's prediction of six months to live – all while in his 40s.

Then came heart trouble.

It started in the middle of the night when he got out of bed and passed out on the bedroom floor. The crashing noise immediately woke his wife, Kay. She discovered her husband unconscious and called 911. At the hospital, doctors diagnosed him with coronary artery disease. He underwent a catheterization procedure to insert a stent that widened a plaque-filled heart artery.

"It kind of snuck up on me, and one day, bam! It was here," said Don of St. Charles, Missouri. He uses a device called an electrolarynx to speak. "I thought, 'My God, I might die.' I didn't know, am I going to live for another year? Am I going to have a heart attack one day and die of it?

The heart problems began in 2005. He's received four more stents and a new aortic valve. He also learned that the culprit for his heart disease was the same as for his throat cancer.

"It was the doggone smoking all those years," he said. "I did that to myself."

Don had already quit smoking cigarettes before his heart disease diagnosis. At his peak, he was smoking about a pack of cigarettes a day.

Determined to warn young people about the dangers of smoking and the addictiveness of nicotine, Don and Kay – also an ex-smoker – formed a nonprofit called Young Choices, Inc. They gave presentations at schools, churches and health fairs. At the presentations, some teenagers would cry when they saw pictures from Don's surgeries.

Some kids would tell him they didn't want their mom and dad to die.

"You go home and tell your mom and dad, 'You need to stop smoking,'" Don would reply.

Don Young (right) and his wife, Kay. (Photo courtesy of Don Young)
Don Young (right) and his wife, Kay. (Photo courtesy of Don Young)

Don and Kay closed their organization during the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, they know their years of advocacy worked. Periodically, Don encounters young adults in the St. Louis area who recognize him, and express gratitude for his speech when they were teens.

"I've had kids come up to me and say, 'I remember when you came to my school, and I don't smoke because of what you taught me,'" Don said.

Now, to stay healthy, Don and Kay – who each have adult children from previous marriages, and now have four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren – try to eat a heart-healthy diet with limited salt and fat.

Don takes several medications and sees his cardiologist twice a year for monitoring. He also stays very active, even competing in the St. Louis Senior Olympics.

Don Young with medals he has won competing in the St. Louis Senior Olympics. (Photo courtesy of Don Young)
Don Young with medals he has won competing in a local sporting event for older adults. (Photo courtesy of Don Young)

It's been a tough journey, but the couple credit their Christian faith for helping them cope.

"We've been living on the edge for 30 years," Kay said. "I even wake up mornings now and look over to see if he's breathing."

Stories From the Heart chronicles the inspiring journeys of heart disease and stroke survivors, caregivers and advocates.

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