After weakened knees forced Bill Dorris to give up distance running, he found his true talent in cycling.

After weakened knees forced Bill Dorris to give up distance running, he found his true talent in cycling.

Competing on the amateur racing circuit for about five years, Dorris was convinced that once he retired from work, he could push himself even further on a bike. He never imagined a heart attack would block his path to the podium for good.

"I thought it could never happen to me," the Central Point resident says.

Dorris, 60, had ridden his bike high atop Ashland's Dead Indian Memorial road on June 23 when his left arm started hurting. His ascent with a group of local cyclists felt "off" somehow, and Dorris wondered what he did to spark soreness in his shoulder. As Dorris descended the steep hill at about 40 mph, the pain subsided.

Dorris partook in a group meal in town, but as he and a friend prepared for the trip home, he asked if they could drive through Ashland rather than toward the nearest freeway on-ramp just in case he needed to stop at the hospital.

"It was adding up (that) it was something to do with my heart," Dorris says.

The second wave of pain had come and gone as they passed Ashland Community Hospital, but by the time the car reached Interstate 5's Phoenix exit, Dorris could no longer deny that he needed medical care.

The escort at Rogue Valley Medical Center's main entrance was, in fact, an acquaintance, the daughter of one of Dorris' longtime employees who jovially asked him what he was doing at the hospital. When Dorris described the pain, the woman's nonchalance couldn't have evaporated more quickly, he recalls. The next thing he knew, she had him in a wheelchair headed straight for the "cath lab."

"It was the most impressive thing," he says. "Then I knew it was serious."

The escort was following protocol under RVMC's ASSET program, which fast-tracks patients experiencing the particular kind of heart attack known as "ST-segment elevation" into surgery. Dorris is among the approximately 600 heart patients handled in this manner over the past five years.

In the cath lab, cardiologists use an electrocardiogram to locate blockages. Inserting a catheter into a large artery in a patient's leg, physicians can open a blocked artery near the heart in as few as 18 minutes, says Dr. Brian Gross. With a wire the width of a human hair, a doctor can then repair the damage with miniscule metal coils, a technique called stenting.

"The whole time I'm awake," Dorris says of the procedure.

About a year after RVMC implemented the process, the hospital reduced its death rate for certain kinds of heart attacks to 2.1 percent, a figure published in American Journal of Cardiology last year. By contrast, U.S. hospitals with similar staff and capabilities saw an 11.8-percent death rate.

"We have one of the fastest places in the world where we can do this," Gross says.

As it turns out, Dorris' own body had an even speedier response.

An accumulation of plaque in one of Dorris' arteries cracked, probably while he was ascending Dead Indian Memorial Road, Gross explains. Obstructing about 50 percent of Dorris' blood flow in that small area, the plaque still didn't inhibit athletic performance, Gross says.

Dorris' body tried to repair the crack by forming a blood clot, Gross says. By the time Dorris reached RVMC, his body had cleared about a third of the blockage on its own, which happens in about 10 to 20 percent of heart-attack cases and likely can be chalked up to solid health and fitness, Gross says. It was a heart attack that even without medical care, Dorris would have survived, the physician adds.

"It opened so quickly, and we got it open even further, that there was virtually no damage," Gross says.

A smooth ride in and out of the cath lab, however, couldn't prepare Dorris for the rough road ahead. He handled Gross' admonition that he wouldn't be fit to race in two weeks' time. But when Dorris' regular cardiologist, Bruce Patterson, told him he would never cycle competitively again, the hospital room reeled.

"At the time, it was a crusher," Dorris says.

It took a trip to RVMC's Cardiac Rehabilitation Center to get Dorris' exercise regimen — and outlook — back on track.

"We taught him the specifics of being able to exercise at a heart-healthy level," says Laura Imperia, cardiac clinical case manager.

Although a lifetime of regular exercise has proven medical benefits, many people don't realize that their risk of suffering a heart attack is slightly increased during periods of intense exercise, Gross says. That's because blood pressure soars and the heart is deprived of oxygen when athletes bypass aerobic activity and enter the anaerobic phase, Imperia says.

"Just because you're an athlete doesn't mean you're not at risk," she says.

A fellow cyclist who had trained with Dorris, Imperia says she was "shocked" to hear he'd had a heart attack. But capitalizing on Dorris' superior fitness and motivation, she accelerated treatment, pushing him to attain a heart rate two weeks after his cardiac episode that many patients wouldn't achieve until they'd spent two months in the program.

"I understood his mind ... how important it was for him to get back on his bike very quickly," Imperia says.

"They just turned my whole attitude around, and I really needed it then," Dorris says.

After six weeks of riding a stationary bike and other machines while staff monitored his heart rate and blood pressure, Dorris was ready to hit the road, this time with a heart-rate monitor, which he uses whenever he exercises, and a vial of nitroglycerine pills — just in case. Yet Dorris' chances of suffering another heart attack are so small that he's more likely to die in a cycling accident, Gross jokes.

Although medication prevents his heart from beating fast enough to be competitive, Dorris still bikes six days per week, enjoying 40-mile, solo rides. Training on his own, he actually sustains a high heart rate for longer periods than he would riding with a group, Dorris says.

"I'm disappointed that it slowed me down to a certain extent," he says. "But I'm happy that I've been able to come back."

Reach reporter Sarah Lemon at 776-4487, or e-mail slemon@mailtribune.com.