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A Northwest Indiana hospital system is offering heart screenings it says are saving lives.

Franciscan Health does the heart scans at its hospitals in Crown Point, Dyer, Hammond and Munster, and will soon do so in Michigan City. The tests are meant to detect the presence of plaque in patients who might not even have symptoms.

"We're trying to catch the general population before a (cardiac) event," said Sam Russell, a nurse navigator for the Franciscan Health hospitals in Dyer and Munster.

"You can be very healthy, but if you've got calcium buildup, (heart disease) can come on quickly and it can fatal."

Franciscan Health recommends the coronary artery calcium scorings for men and women between ages 40 and 80 with one of the following risk factors: a current or former smoker, diabetes, high blood pressure or cholesterol, or a family history of heart disease.

"Franciscan Alliance has a goal of early detection and behavior modification, prevention," said Nanette Kelley, system director of operations transformation for Franciscan Health.

"The low-dose, CT scan can detect calcium buildup in the heart and give patients and cardiologists a pathway to treatment, whether it's to stop smoking, eat better, let's exercise." Doctors also may use the scores to adjust medication dosages.

The heart scans aren't covered by insurance and cost $49. They can also be packaged with lung scans (which Medicare does pay for) and vascular screenings.

Russell said he screens about 25 to 30 patients a week between Dyer and Munster. The individuals each get a health assessment as well.

"Some of the patients have seen a doctor in five years," he said. "I'm the first health care person they've seen in many years."

He often detects heart problems in people who then return with other relatives.

"I screened a patient who is the patriarch of his family. We found something in him. I've since done 11 or 12 of his family members," Russell said. "Genetics is a huge indicator when it comes to heart health."

He notes that, thanks to this test, people who suspect they have a family history of heart disease don't have to wait until they get sick to find out.

"Just because you have bad genetics, you can prepare for it," he said. "These screenings are one way to prepare for it."

The noninvasive scans have minimal radiation, he noted, and are over in a matter of minutes. Franciscan Health has been doing the scans in central Indiana for more than a decade and brought them up to Northwest Indiana in the past couple of years.

Franciscan refers people with a calcium score over 300 to a cardiologist. A score between 100 and 300 means a follow-up with your physician is a good idea. If the result is less than 100, Franciscan suggests repeating it in five years and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Genetics, however, might change these recommendations.

Russell said that, for him, doing these screenings is personal.

"My father died from lung cancer at age 64, from smoking. My mother had a stroke at age 60 — she was also a smoker," Russell said. "I wish they had these screenings years ago. Hopefully it would have been a different outcome for my parents."


Health Reporter

Giles is the health reporter for The Times, covering the business of health care as well as consumer and public health. He previously wrote about health for the Lawrence (Kansas) Journal-World. He is a graduate of Northern Illinois University.