2 Coast business leaders share their experiences with America’s No. 1 killer

This businessman was a picture of health. One test out of curiosity saved his life.

Ron Savell, who owns 19 restaurants and lives a healthy lifestyle, never thought twice about his medical history until he had children. His curiosity saved his life after a test showed he needed a bypass in his 40s. Now he's telling his story.
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Ron Savell, who owns 19 restaurants and lives a healthy lifestyle, never thought twice about his medical history until he had children. His curiosity saved his life after a test showed he needed a bypass in his 40s. Now he's telling his story.

Just three weeks after open-heart surgery, Ron Savell stood before a room full of people, his arms protectively crossed in front of him, and shared his story.

Savell, 43, is trim and fit. Although there certainly is stress running the 19 restaurants he owns under the Patio 44 and Mugshots brands in South Mississippi and elsewhere, he isn’t an obvious candidate for heart disease.

There was none of the pain in his chest or arm or shortness of breath that are typical symptoms of heart disease.

“I never had anything,” he said.

He told a gathering of employees at Mississippi Power’s headquarters in Gulfport on Thursday that he’s not a public speaker and usually doesn’t talk about himself. It was the first time he spoke about his health issues since his Aug. 16 quadruple bypass surgery, except on social media.

“Don’t ignore any symptoms, don’t wait until someone tells you it’s time to get this checked or that checked due to your age, get your levels checked, go have a physical, go to annual visits don’t wait until its too late,” he posted to his family and friends not long after the surgery.

The employee rally was to encourage the 138 staff members who have signed up to participate in the Gulf Coast Heart Walk Sept. 28 at Jones Park in Gulfport.

“This disease impacts every family,” said Anthony Wilson, chairman of Mississippi Power and this year’s chairman of the Heart Walk.

Ten years ago, his mother, who also was fit and had no symptoms, discovered she needed a quadruple bypass.

Sometimes there aren’t any warning signs, Wilson said. “It just slips up on you.”

‘Excruciating’ pain

That’s the way it was for LuAnn Pappas, CEO of Scarlet Pearl Casino in D’Iberville. Had it not been for the actions of coworker John Ciccone five years ago, Pappas said she would not be alive today.

“John was the only one in work that fateful morning. With no warning and feeling otherwise fantastic I was struck with horrific unexplained chest pains,” she said. She didn’t think to phone for help, but tried to make it to Ciccone’s office.

“I collapsed to the floor in excruciating, unbearable pain,” she recalls. Ciccone called 911. Her doctors told Pappas that Ciccone saved her life.

“Most people do not survive a “widow maker heart attack,” she said. “I survived due to John’s quick reaction — ignoring my pleas to not call anyone.”

Can’t happen to me

Savell said he was adopted and didn’t know his birth parents or his medical history. He started searching for them when he and he and his wife began having their four children.

It took years, but he found them both. “Heart disease was an issue,” he learned.

Savell said he skipped a stress test last year when his echo cardiogram came back fine, and did great when he finally took the test about five weeks ago.

Then, the nurse called to say there was a spot on his heart that may have been from dye used in the test, “Or you’ve had a heart attack,” she told him.

His cardiologist, Josh Blair in Hattiesburg, did a heart catheterization on Aug. 8 and Savell said, “He told me I had to have a bypass — at 43 years old.” His surgery was six days later.

What’s next

Although many people take more time off after heart sugery, Savell said he feels better working.

He will have to watch his diet, and says Patio 44 has several heart-healthy dishes on the menu and he’s reviewing the menu at Mugshots.

People get regular oil changes and maintenance of their cars, Savell said, “But we don’t do preventative maintenance on our body.” If he didn’t have four kids he might not have gotten the tests, he said.

“I took them to school this morning,” he said, then drove from Hattiesburg to Gulfport to share his story.

Wilson said his mother is now 85 and doing well since her heart surgery.

Pappas says she stays healthy with a pacemaker, a defibrillator, several stents, heart medication and thanks to Ciccone, “my Guardian Angel.”

Join the Heart Walk

Jessica Bilotta, director of the Gulf Coast Heart Walk, said heart disease is the No. 1 killer nationwide and on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. A man working at a South Mississippi company with about 300 employees recently went into cardiac arrest at work — and died.

“No one knew what to do,” she said.

The Heart Walk is held to raise awareness about heart disease and stroke, with health-health checks and demonstrations planned. This year’s goal is to raise $375,000 to help people with heart disease.

Families, co-workers and individuals who want to join the Heart Walk can still register online or call Toni Francis at 228-604-5318 to participate or donate.

Piedmont Columbus Regional offered the unique chance to walk through a giant, inflatable heart during a Be Heart Smart event in downtown Columbus. Craig Vaughn, RN, director of cardiology services for Piedmont Columbus Regional, gives us the tour.

Mary Perez is the business and casino reporter for the Sun Herald and also writes about Biloxi, jobs and the new restaurants and development coming to the Coast. She is a fourth-generation journalist.