AUSTIN - Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan's heart, the same one that allowed him to pitch into his mid-40s and turn back Robin Ventura's mound charge near the end of his career, was also the same one given to him by a family plagued with heart disease.
According to doctors who treated the 53-year-old Ryan for double-bypass surgery on Sunday, Ryan didn't suffer a heart attack as his grandfather and brother did before him.
But Ryan's left coronary artery was damaged so severely that if he hadn't headed to the hospital after suffering shortness of breath, tingling in his arms and chest pains while walking Sunday, he might not have had a second chance, doctors said.
"It was one of the more serious situations you can have," said Dr. Mark Felger, who performed the surgery on Ryan, taking a vein from below Ryan's breastbone and a vein from below his left knee to replace the damaged artery.
A lesion had developed where the left coronary artery meets Ryan's aorta, resulting in blockage that ranged from 50 percent to 90 percent because of spasms in the artery, Felger said.
Complete blockages of other heart arteries are survivable. But not where Ryan had his blockage, doctors said, because the left coronary artery supplies 75 percent of the blood to the heart.
"You can have complete blockages of an artery, have a heart attack and still survive it," said Dr. Thomas McMinn, the cardiologist at Heart Hospital of Austin who discovered Ryan's blockage with an angiogram.
"But not many people survive a complete blockage where he had it because that artery simply supplies too much blood to the rest of the heart."
Heart Hospital of Austin cardiologist Dr. Stephen Garland reiterated that Ryan merely suffered symptoms of severe heart disease and did not suffer a heart attack.
Garland added that Ryan's double-bypass surgery was the result of a family history of heart disease and nothing else.
Ryan's grandfather died of a heart attack in his 50s. His mother suffered a stroke in her 50s before dying 20 years later. His brother, Bob Ryan of San Antonio, also survived a heart attack in his 50s and now leads a productive life.
"He's signified and stood for defying youth," Nolan Ryan's son, Reid, said of his dad. "When word got out, it was almost as if someone had brought kryptonite to Superman."
Reid Ryan is president of the Class AA Texas League baseball team Nolan Ryan helped purchase and move to Round Rock - the Express. Ryan experienced chest pains Sunday morning when he was at the home stadium of the Express, The Dell Diamond, with his wife, Ruth.
Felger said Ryan had a history of high cholesterol but added that the other arteries in his heart looked perfect.
"They look like his fastball down the middle," Felger said. "Smooth."
Ryan's son, Reese, said that his father had continued to eat a high-protein diet that included red meat - just as he did as a baseball player. Reese said his father had maintained a rigorous exercise regimen that included riding a stationary bike, walking with Ruth and lifting weights.
Reid Ryan said his father has undergone a physical and stress testing every year since leaving baseball.
But Garland said such tests may not reveal blockage in the heart.
"Many of us are walking around with 35 percent blockage in an artery and don't even know it," Garland said. "Tests may not show that, but the blockage can worsen very quickly. Most heart-attack patients have never experienced any chest pains before they are affected."
The outlook for Ryan is good, Felger said. Ryan was walking on Monday, although his steps were slow and careful.
"He was passed in the hall by a woman who had been here for four days," Reid Ryan joked. "That was about the only setback today."