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As kids, non-identical twins Charlene and Darlene Canzoneri couldn’t pull the standard identical twin pranks, such as switching places for a test or a date. However, their near-identical voices did make it possible to switch identities on the phone a few times.
At 69, the sisters, now Charlene Autrey and Darlene Apicella, have long realized the more meaningful advantages of having a twin. This was never truer than in mid-2018 when each of them faced the consequences of a seriously blocked left anterior descending artery (LAD). Blockage in this main artery, which supplies more than half of the heart muscle with blood, is dangerous enough to earn the nickname, “the widowmaker.”
On May 15, 2018, Charlene, a resident of Aurora and Edward Hospital employee, went to her doctor complaining of pain under her arm and into her side. She said it had been bothering her on and off for a couple of weeks. She had neither chest pain nor shortness of breath, but her doctor said she should go to the Emergency Department.
An electrocardiogram (EKG) in the Edward Hospital ER confirmed that Charlene was having a heart attack. She was moved to the hospital’s cardiac catheterization lab where they discovered a 99 percent blockage in her LAD.
Interventional cardiologist Tony DeMartini, M.D., an independent physician and member of Edward Hospital’s medical staff, performed an angioplasty, a catheter-based procedure to remove the blockage. He also inserted two stents to keep the artery walls open.
“As soon as the heart attack was confirmed I was very nervous,” says Charlene. “But when I came back to my room after the procedure my sister was there. She has a great sense of humor and once she started to make me laugh I relaxed.”
After two nights in the hospital, Charlene returned home. Within a few weeks, she began cardiac rehab where she soon would be joined by her twin. In mid-June 2018, retired nurse Darlene experienced several days of chest pressure and shortness of breath.
“This concerned me because my calcium score had been 410 and my cholesterol counts were high,” recalls Darlene.
An angiogram showed that Darlene also had an LAD blockage (of 80 percent). In her case, Dr. DeMartini needed to place just one stent. It wasn’t the first time the twins shared timing on a medical problem. Years earlier they suffered through kidney stones at about the same time.
Darlene’s procedure went well and she started cardiac rehab in September, just a couple of weeks after Charlene began her sessions.
Says Darlene, “At first I didn’t want to go to rehab, but I’m glad I did. We could go at our own pace and become comfortable with gradually increasing the intensity. It helped me stay motivated and overcome the fear of being active again.
“Being in cardiac rehab together meant Char and I could encourage each other. It helps that we often can feel what the other is going through. The other patients and the wonderful staff also helped make rehab a good experience.”
In October 2018, Charlene had a second heart attack. Again her symptoms were pain under her arm and down her side. After another angioplasty, Charlene returned to Phase 2 of cardiac rehab, which includes medical monitoring during exercise, as well as group sessions. A Phase 3 maintenance program follows, with supervised exercise and regular blood pressure checks, but no heart monitors.
Meanwhile, Darlene completed her 30 weeks of rehab and headed south to Bonita Springs, Florida, where she and her husband Tom spend part of the winter.
Charlene says that Darlene came up with a good diet that’s primarily plant-based, and both women are following it.
Darlene says, “I now eat tons of vegetables and, most evenings, some nuts and an apple. Sweets are pretty much out, except for a little dark chocolate.”
Says Charlene, “I eat very little meat, except for some occasional chicken. But we’re Italian, so the pasta has to stay, and a little bit of pizza once in a while is a must.”
Even when the sisters are in different states they talk on the phone every day and report on their food and exercise.
“We prop each other up if one of us doesn’t feel like exercising that day,” says Charlene.
Typically, both women work out five times a week. Darlene has home equipment she uses and Charlene exercises at Edward’s cardiac rehab center, and sometimes at the Edward-Elmhurst Health & Fitness Center.
Says Charlene, “I’ve always felt healthy, but stepping up my exercise has accentuated it. I feel more energy and a sense of well-being.
“Going through rehab helped change our outlook and our lifestyles. And doing it together gave us a sense of safety. We watch out for each other. I thank God every day for this support.”
Learn more about heart and vascular services at Edward-Elmhurst Health. To find out if you’re at risk for heart disease, take an online HeartAware assessment.
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