“At that moment, the world stopped. Suddenly, my heart began to beat faster and harder like a drum line ringing in my ears. Then I heard the words that would change my life forever.”

Justin Smith learned at the age of 28 he has a serious heart condition, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), where the heart muscle thickens. It can make the heart work harder than it should and potentially cause cardiac arrest. HCM is often inherited and can have no apparent symptoms.

Family connection. “I had an uncle with HCM,” says Justin, “and my granny told our whole family to get checked out.”

That may have saved his life. A deputy sheriff, Justin had shown no signs of heart trouble.

“I went through the police academy and SWAT training — never had any problems,” he says.

Justin had further tests at the Ascension Saint Thomas Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy Clinic, a center of excellence focused on HCM. Active and fit, he barely broke a sweat during his cardiac stress test. So, he had a cardiac MRI and catheterization to check his heart.

Life-saving surgery. Mark Zenker, MD, director of the clinic, recommended implanting a defibrillator that will restore normal heartbeat if his heart goes into arrest. “I thought, this is something I have to do, and I haven’t looked back,” says Justin. Still on active duty as a deputy, Justin also serves as a Wilson County commissioner.

“I do spin class, run, lift weights, scuba dive,” he says. Scuba dive? Yes. Determined to not give up his passion, Justin worked with doctors to find a defibrillator that could withstand the underwater pressure.  

Personalized care. “The one-on-one relationship at Saint Thomas is phenomenal,” says Justin. “I’ve seen how other hospitals work. You feel like a number. Here, my doctor is willing to take time to answer my questions and have a conversation about what’s next.”

“When you’re diagnosed with a heart condition, it’s like your world is flipped upside down,” says Justin. “But I believe there is a reason I’m living through this. Every day that I wake up and see my scar, it reminds me that I’m still serving God.”


To make an appointment with the Ascension Saint Thomas Heart Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy Clinic, call 615-222-HCM5 (4265).

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