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The Last Heart Attack; Dealing with Dyslexia; Becoming Human

Aired September 3, 2011 - 07:30   ET


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, HOST: Hello. Welcome to the program. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

This morning, we're going to talk about how we might prevent all heart attacks. There are things out there, including new tests and a new take on cholesterol. I'm going to tell you about it.

Plus, a man who suffered from dyslexia so debilitating that his mother had to read him all the school work out loud.

And two fossil hunters put aside a 30-year feud to talk exclusively with me about human evolution.

But, first, news about the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and what they are still doing to us 10 years later. In New York, when the Twin Towers fell, thousands of men and women raced to help. You've seen these images. They spent weeks on what we came to call "the pile," digging rubble and digging for survivors.

But many of these rescue workers now blame the smoke and the dust for all sorts of health issues including breathing problems and even cancer. Now, I have been investigating this for several months. And I'll tell you, it's controversial.

But this week, a new study out says the cancer link is real -- at least for firefighters. Other patients say that could just be the tip of the iceberg.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have Boy Scout camp right at the top of that mountain up there.

GUPTA (voice-over): Ernie Vallebuona and Bernie Kelly (ph), former vice cops with the New York City Police Department, partners, arrived at Ground Zero within hours of the collapse.

ERNIE VALLEBUONA: We were watching the teams of firemen going in with their tools and their scat packs. They would just disappear right before our eyes.

GUPTA (on camera): Like the distance I am to you?

VALLEBUONA: Yes, yes, pretty much to your hand would be like where your partner would disappear as you walk into that dust. And we were walking and I just got to grab on to him. And I had to hold on to the hood of his jacket. He would disappear. I would lose him. And I wouldn't even know where I was going..

BERNIE KELLY: Nobody had any kind of respirators in the police department anyway. We didn't have any kind of respirators. So, we were trying to wrap bandanas around our faces.

GUPTA (voice-over): In a statement, the city of New York told us, despite overwhelming logistical challenges, several hundred thousand respirators were made available to the workers within a week.

But in the chaos, many rescue workers, including Vallebuona and his partner say they never got a hold of one.

Three years later, Vallebuona was diagnosed with cancer, advanced stage lymphoma, rarely seen in someone so young, and the type that may be caused by toxins in the environment.

VALLEBUONA: How is everything going with your treatment?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I finished the last treatment. I have to go back and see if I'm done.

GUPTA: There are so many rescue workers in Vallebuona circle, mostly cops, all and responders, who got sick and they formed a Cancer Club.

VALLEBOUNA: One of my friends, he's a captain. He had multiple myeloma. Another lieutenant who worked in vice with me, he has the same lymphoma I have. The same exact kind.

GUPTA (on camera): How many people just off the top of your head can you think of that fall into that pattern, blood cancer?

VALLEBOUNA: There are so many, I hear, every month there are a couple more.

GUPTA: Every month?


GUPTA (voice-over): It is true that exposure to chemicals and the dust has made many responders sick. Most have serious respiratory problems. But questions about cancers have alluded scientists until now.

Dr. David Prezant, chief medical officer of the New York City Fire Department authored a study just published in "Lancet Medical Journal" suggesting something may change this whole debate, answering the question that many believed would never been answered. That firefighters working Ground Zero are, in fact, at increased risk for cancer.

DR. DAVID PREZANT, NEW YORK FIRE DEPARTMENT: We found a 19 percent increase in all cancers in our exposed firefighters as compared to our non-exposed firefighters.

GUPTA (on camera): Nineteen percent increase in cancer rates. That's a significant increase. PREZANT: That's a significant increase. We excluded cancers that might have been diagnosed early. We still see this 19 percent increase when we put those cancers back in. We see a 32 percent increase.

GUPTA (voice-over): Before Dr. Prezant's study was released, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found no connection between exposure to dust and cancer. Dr. Prezant's study may change that understanding.

(on camera): Does this mean anything for other people who are down at Ground Zero, other first responders, rescue workers, anybody else?

PREZANT: Whether we can say that cancer is increased in other responders or area residents, we have no idea. This is a study about firefighters. Their exposure is unique -- 85 percent of the exposed were present in the first 48 hours of the collapse when the exposure was massive. That is a very unique exposure.

GUPTA (voice-over): As for Ernie Vallebuona, this study doesn't confirm that his cancer was caused by the dust. For him? There is no doubt.

VALLEBUONA: I firmly believe that.

GUPTA (on camera): It's a tough thing to prove, isn't it?

VALLEBUONA: Oh, sure. Maybe there's no scientific study to finally prove that, but, you know, just the common man, common sense answer would be yes. There are too many people getting these blood disorders and these other cancers and respiratory problems.

GUPTA (voice-over): There's a lot more to Ernie's story as well. You can see it all and what other police and firefighters have gone through. Also, rare and never before seen footage from that day.

My full investigation of the health fallout from 9/11 is this Wednesday, "Terror in the Dust," at 11:00 p.m. Eastern.


GUPTA: Coming up, the test that can really show if you are at risk for a heart attack. It's something that I was eager to myself and you are as well. That's right after a quick break.


GUPTA: I want to talk to you about a special report of mine. It's been generating quite a bit of buzz lately. It's called "The Last Heart Attack." You may have heard of this.

Here's the premise -- plain and simple -- it is that we know everything we need to know right now to make heart attacks a thing of the past, at least here in America. Think about that for a second. As a typical guy in his early 40s with a family history of heart disease, I decided to go on a mission to never have a heart problem. But how?


GUPTA (voice-over): Dr. Arthur Agatston has guaranteed he can see trouble coming, years in advance.

DR. ARTHUR AGATSTON, UNIVERSITY OF MIAMI MILLER SCHOOL OF MEDICINE: So here is where the blood is flowing and this is lining.

GUPTA: Agatston is using an ultrasound to look for plaque in the carotid artery leading to my brain. A blockage here can cause a stroke and would be a sign I'm at increased risk for a heart attack.

(on camera): You're actually going to look for what? My heart?

AGATSTON: Yes. For calcium which is part of the atherosclerotic process, the plaques in the heart. And if you're --

GUPTA: I've never had a problem, but you are looking for it anyways.

AGATSTON: Yes, if you are heading for a heart attack in 5, 10, 20 years, you're already have plaque. It's a lifelong process.

GUPTA (voice-over): We all know plaque is bad. It blocks your blood vessels. Plaque is formed by LDL cholesterol in the blood, the bad cholesterol. Think of it as L for "lousy," building up on the walls of your arteries forming plaque. It can accumulate slowly, over time, narrowing the blood vessels like something building up inside a pipe.

This narrowing in the blood vessels leading to your heart can cause chest pain, called angina. It can also cause a heart attack.

This may surprise you: Most heart attacks happen in people with no symptoms. In people whose arteries are less than 15 percent blocked.

Here's how: cholesterol can cause unstable bubbles or blisters of plaque to form in your arteries. These can be incredibly dangerous. Most are covered by a cap, but inflammation and stress can cause the cap to thin and rupture resulting in a clot that blocks the flow of blood to the heart.

Robbed of oxygen, the heart muscle can't function properly -- heart attack.

AGATSTON: One of the best kept secrets in the country in medicine is that doctors who are practicing aggressive prevention are really seeing heart attacks and strokes disappear from their practices. It's doable.

GUPTA (on camera): And you're saying we -- with what we know right now, we don't have to have any more heart attacks in this country.

AGATSTON: I'll never say not any, but the great majority -- yes, absolutely.

GUPTA: It's the biggest killer of men and women, heart disease in this country.

AGATSTON: And it's completely preventable.

GUPTA (voice-over): Your body needs cholesterol. Actually makes it. It is in the lining of every cell in your body. The liver sends out LDL cholesterol, and when everything works right the good, HDL, scavenges excess LDL and brings it back to the liver.

You also get cholesterol in foods, things like meat, French fries, eggs, butter, desserts, ice cream.

Your cholesterol number is a good measure of what's in the blood. But here's the problem -- it doesn't tell you if it's building up in the walls of your blood vessels, forming plaque. It's the plaque that causes heart attacks.

AGATSTON: If you look in the coronary care unit at people that have heart attacks, the cholesterol levels of those who have heart attacks versus those in the street who have it are essentially the same.

GUPTA (on camera): That is kind of surprising, right? Because you'll hear people exchanging their cholesterol numbers. And if it's low, they seem quite proud of it. If it's high, there's cause for concern. You say that that's -- you know what? They're not looking in the right place.

AGATSTON: That's essentially useless.

GUPTA (voice-over): Here's what does matter -- Agatston says -- the size of your LDL, or bad cholesterol particles. Larger LDL particles don't pose much of a threat because they pass through the blood vessels without sticking. It's the smaller LDL particles that are more likely to lodge in the walls of blood vessels and cause a build- up of plaque.

AGATSTON: There are a lot of little old ladies in their 80s with very high cholesterols who have squeaky clean vessels. They have very large cholesterol particles and they don't get in to the vessel wall.


GUPTA: Now, I did find out about my cholesterol and plaque and coronary calcium levels. And my doctors say that I'm heart attack- proof, at least for a while. But you want that as well.

You can watch me. You can watch former President Bill Clinton exploring the signs, the test, and lifestyle changes that can lead us all to the last heart attack.

Now, I want you to imagine this, you are surrounded by words you can see, but can't read. It makes almost impossible to function in everyday life -- until now.


GUPTA: You know, it's estimated somewhere between 5 percent and 10 percent of the population suffers from some degree dyslexia.

Ben Foss suffered throughout his school year with this, depending on others, even his mother, to help him understand written words. But now, he's depending on this new device. It's called an Intel Reader and it's something that he invented himself.


GUPTA (voice-over): For Ben Foss who has dyslexia, this device is something he doesn't leave home without.

BEN FOSS, HAS DYSLEXIA: Unsweetened cocoa and I can get semisweet or really sweet or -- and that could screw up the recipe.

GUPTA: The Intel Reader, a device Foss helped design turns written words into speech.

(on camera): But once you actually use the technology, I mean, you take the picture.

FOSS: Yes.

GUPTA: Allow it to process.

FOSS: Yes.

GUPTA: At that point if you're -- if you're good at being able to listen at 250 words per minute, you could essentially catch right up to --

FOSS: I can eliminate a lot of the challenges. So when most people are reading, they're hearing language. I don't. When I read text, it's like having a bad cell phone connection to the page. Things drop out. I miss pieces of information.

When I was a kid, my mom would read out loud to me, which wasn't a big deal. When I went to college, I used to fax my term papers home to her in New Hampshire and she'd read them to me over the phone so that I could find my own spelling mistakes.

GUPTA (voice-over): Remarkably the next step for Foss was Stanford Law.

(on camera): At one point, you say you want to go to a law school. Was that almost to say you know what, I'm going to do this in spite of dyslexia?

FOSS: I would do it in spite of the books. I was a very good public speaker. I was a debater. That's what lawyers do, right? It turned out also read -- which I've kind of overlook in the whole formula.

GUPTA (voice-over): Still, he got his law degree and a business degree. But Ben says it was his own experience with dyslexia that drove him to develop the device.

FOSS: That was basically so I didn't have to call my mom every time I needed something read, like good for me. Good for my mom. The result was that I wanted to be able to take a photograph of any printed material and to read it on the spot.

GUPTA: Nowadays Ben helps fight for folks just like him as the executive director of a disability rights organization.

FOSS: Think about who you are and what your story is.

GUPTA: He encourages people to be open about their disabilities and to find ways to adapt.

FOSS: It's definitely faster than I read, but it's doable.

GUPTA (on camera): It's doable.

FOSS: Yes.

GUPTA: But you -- you can listen to it that fast?

FOSS: I can. But that's the result of years of practice. You spend five years learning how to master text. And I spent five years how -- learning how to master this.


GUPTA: You know, it sort of remarkable. Here's the device. It costs about $1,000. So, it's not cheap. But the story, Ben Foss's story is so inspiring. And you might be surprised to learn this, there are a lot of people out there that are just like Ben. You see, dyslexia is at its core, a reading disability. But often dyslexics tend to excel in other areas, like design or communication, problem solving.

One study found that a staggering 35 percent of entrepreneurs are in fact, dyslexics. Some big names, Richard Branson, Steven Spielberg, Jay Leno, they all have dyslexia as well.

Well, still to come, my exclusive conversation with Richard Leakey and Donald Johanson. You have to watch this. These two men have traced back our family tree more than 3 million years. What does that mean for medicine and what is it that really makes us all human?


GUPTA: You know, the presidential campaign heated up recently, not over the economy or health care, but when Rick Perry, the Republican governor of Texas, was asked about the theory of evolution. Listen to what he had to say.


GOV. RICK PERRY (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You know, it's a theory that is out there and it's got some gaps in it, but in Texas, we teach both creationism and evolution in our public schools.

(END VIDEO CLIP) GUPTA: He's talking about gaps with the theory of evolution. He's not alone in his thinking. And polls show most Americans are skeptical.

I recently had a chance to talk with two men who have spent their entire lives on the evolution puzzle.

Richard Leakey, the son of two great fossil hunters. Among his own finds, "Turkana Boy," a near complete skeleton of a pre-human ancestor.

I also spoke to Donald Johanson. In 1974, he found the skeleton of a girl he called "Lucy," more than 3 million years old, another missing link between apes and humans.

Now, the interesting thing is these men have the scientific rivalry, but they set that aside to meet me at the Museum of Natural History in New York. I started with Leaky still recuperating from some recent facial surgery.


GUPTA: Dr. Leakey, let me share with you the results of this poll just this past year, December of 2010. It said 40 percent of people who were polled believe that it was God that created humans in their present form, 38 percent additional believe that God guided that process, 16 percent believe that God had no role, and 6 percent of the people chose not to participate in that poll.

Those numbers have not changed in almost 40 years in terms of people's beliefs on -- from where we came.

First of all, does that surprise you?

RICHARD LEAKEY, PALEOANTHROPOLOGIST: It disappoints me. One of the points that, perhaps, I would like to emphasize and which probably isn't emphasized in any museum exhibit that I've seen, is that people talk about the theory of evolution and, therefore, they assume that that skull is theoretical object.

That skull is a fact. Every skull in this room is a fact. All have been found, can be held, can be felt, can be measured and most can be organized in a sequence of when they lived. Those are facts. Those facts are not accounted for in the biblical account.

DONALD JOHANSON, PALEOANTHROPOLOGIST: That's the brilliance of Darwin. It's like somebody who is a creationist today, if they came into this room with an open mind, like Darwin left England with an open mind, he was transformed by what he saw. And that's one of the great things about an exhibit like this.

People come in and say, gosh, they have a lot of evidence. It isn't just one specimen, they've got thousands. There's a really important record here.

GUPTA: How do you determine, in fact, what you're looking at? For example, with "Lucy" or in fact this creature could walk upright. How do -- how do you arrive at these conclusions?

JOHANSON: That's right. That's a critical feature of what it means to be human. So at that stage, if you can show through analyses of the bones that this creature was upright-walking, and rather than walking on all fours, you can comfortably place it on the human family tree.

"Lucy" had a knee, in looking at the knee, I remember the first discovery I made, was of a knee joint in 1973. I took it right down to Nairobi, showed it to Richard, and brought it back to the United States and found myself involved with orthopedic surgeons.

And you know, the guy picks it up, he looks at it, does knee replacements and says this is a human knee. This is exactly what we would used to replace someone who needed a new knee.

GUPTA: That's really fascinating. The orthopedic surgeon who was looking at this knee, when he or she found out it was from 3.2 million years ago, might have been a stunning thing to them.

JOHANSON: He was amazed because he said every little nuance we put into a artificial knee, is right here.

GUPTA: Fascinating. Well, we continue to evolve?

LEAKEY: Has evolution ended? It may have in large organisms like us, but not in microorganisms. And we are putting pressure on pathogens and viruses and bacteria all the time. You as a doctor know this, resistant strains of pneumonia, resistance strains of various diseases, it's because those little beasts have evolved under pressure from us. Environmental pressure which we have created in hospital wards.

We are producing new things, new forms of life, that could ultimately be our undoing. If HIV/AIDS spread not through body secretions, but through coughing, it would have killed a lot more people than it did.

GUPTA: It's frightening to think about.

Let me just -- let me just finish quickly with you, Dr. Leaky, this question comes up that if you find evidence of life somewhere other than earth, does it change how you view our origins on earth?

LEAKY: I think the discovery of life beyond our planet won't change our understanding of life on this planet, but it will change the creation's viewpoint that we are unique and created on this world ourselves. It will be the most wonderful thing of all to discover and it's going to happen.

And I'm absolutely certain with the number of new planets and systems that are being discovered today, it's a matter of time before we realize that we may be unique in the fact that we're sitting in the natural history museum talking about bones, but that we're not unique in terms of being able to reproduce and do the various things that we do. JOHANSON: I think it's without question that there's life, you know, in other parts of the universe and we will find that. The question is, is there intelligent life? Is there life that's like our lives?

I know it sounds egocentric and sounds arrogant, but what if we are alone? What if we are the only species that composes symphonies and paints impressionist paintings? What if we were to disappear and the earth were to become an empty place with no one to appreciate the American Museum of Natural History, Metropolitan Museum of Art, go listen to Beethoven's "Fifth Symphony" -- wouldn't that be the biggest tragedy ever, that this highly creative species would vanish?

GUPTA: Look, I just want to say thank you again. I've said to you both it's an honor, but it's also just a dream for me to be especially here with -- in this place with both of you. Thank you very much.

LEAKEY: Thank you.

JOHANSON: Thank you very much.


GUPTA: Well, that will do it for SGMD this morning.

You can see more of Don Johanson and Richard Leakey incidentally, as well as a lot of other stories I'm working on. It's called "My Life Stream" at

Thanks for being us with us this morning. Time now to get you back to the "CNN NEWSROOM" for a check of your top stories making news right now.