David Bauder, AP
A routine news story took a strange turn when an ABC Nightline anchor had a full body scan that turned up a possible warning sign. Bill Weir was interviewing Dr. David Agus, who gave him a full series of tests. That included a costly body scan that's not recommended for screening people with no symptoms of disease. The scan found calcium deposits in two arteries, which the doctor told Weir could put him at risk for a future heart attack. But since the program aired Tuesday night, other doctors have challenged that assessment.
The 44-year-old anchor put himself through a battery of tests to illustrate a story about how to prevent disease only to find out on camera that one screening spotted heart disease he never knew he had. The doctor who screened him worried that he is a candidate for a serious heart attack if he doesn't make changes in his life. Weir considers himself lucky.
"It was the scariest and most fortunate moment of my life, and it happened completely by accident," he said Wednesday. "If I hadn't been assigned this story, who knows when I would have seen a doctor again?" Weir spoke over lunch, after ordering salmon at a place where he's always had pizza with sausage. Agus, who put Weir through the tests, said he has received thousands of emails from people who saw Weir's story and he hopes it spurs many to talk with their own doctors. "He's a hero," said Agus, the author of The End of Illness, a new book about how the human body works and how it can fail.
However, Weir's story caused controversy within the medical community. Leading cardiologists challenged whether Weir should have been given a whole body scan and the portrayal of how serious a condition it revealed. Scans for healthy people with no heart symptoms are strongly discouraged by the American Heart Association. The federal Food and Drug Administration warns that they expose people to very high doses of radiation without proof that any benefits outweigh risks.
"It's completely outside the current recommendations," to give a test to a man like Weir, said Yale University cardiologist Dr. Harlan Krumholz said. The findings are "more likely to alarm him and create anxiety and fear than it is to help save his life." The Cleveland Clinic's cardiology chief, Dr. Steven Nissen, said Weir may have a calcium deposit, "but so do an awful lot of people," and that doesn't necessarily mean high risk of a heart attack.
ABC sent Weir's scan to Nissen on Wednesday. Although he said he couldn't comment on what it showed, Nissen said heart doctors would treat conditions known to raise heart risk such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol, and, "we're not going to alter treatment based on the fact that he has a speck of calcium."
Weir figured that doing the tests would be an interesting way to illustrate his story. He had no worries about his health. At 6-foot-2 and 203 pounds, he still fits into pants he wore in college. He rarely got sick and said it had been more than three years since he had even seen a doctor. When the results came in, Agus initially didn't want to discuss them on camera for privacy reasons. However, Weir and his producers said to keep the camera rolling as what he found was discussed. Weir said he blanked out when he was told by the doctor about the heart disease.
"His lips kept moving, but I stopped listening," he recalled. After less than 24 hours, Weir said he's gotten a bigger response from viewers for this than for any other story he's done. He's got an appointment with a cardiologist and is already taking a cholesterol-lowering statin and a baby aspirin each day. He's changing his diet, and the Wisconsin native grilled salmon instead of bratwurst for the Packers playoff game last weekend.