It’s a new optional feature of the Apple Watch’s updated Heart Rate app—an alert if your heart rises to an unusual level when you’ve been idle for over 10 minutes. Gilley, who’s struggled with heart issues for a decade and had recently been diagnosed with an abnormal heart rate condition called atrial fibrillation—had opted in.
And by the time he reached a nearby hospital that night, his heart was failing.
Fortunately, Gilley’s story has a happy ending: He walked out of the hospital a few days later, in large, crediting his watch with saving his life.
It’s enough to make anyone rush order a tracking device of their own.
After all: “Heart rate is one of the key vital signs—and the ability to monitor it could be useful to diagnose various heart rhythm disturbances,” notes Deepak L. Bhatt, M.D., executive director of Interventional Cardiovascular Programs at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, MA. “It could also provide useful information on how someone’s heart responds to exercise or even stressful situations.”
But right now, while large studies are ongoing, scientific evidence suggesting who might benefit from monitoring is still lacking, Bhatt notes. There are also many “false alarms” that can trigger unnecessary medical tests and procedures, he says.
If you do use a tracking device, remember to see it as a complement to healthcare, not an end-all-be-all. As Aaron Baggish, M.D., director of the Cardiovascular Performance Program at the Massachusetts General Hospital Heart Center says: “Getting a watch that gives you health information should never be a substitute for getting a good doctor who understands heart health and also sports and athletics.”
Regardless, Gilley’s story is a noteworthy one. And recently, we caught up with him to talk about his scare, how it changed his views on health and fitness, and what he wants people to know about this technology.
Walk us through that moment your watch alerted you.
It was pretty much a normal Friday night. My wife and I were watching television. We had takeout Chinese, and all of a sudden, I didn’t feel so good. I didn’t know if it was the Chinese or what. I didn’t feel my heart pounding or racing, but I got a message on my watch that said I needed to check my heart rate. I happened to have a blood pressure cuff and took my blood pressure. It was 160/110 [normal blood pressure is considered less than 120 over less than 80]. My heart was also racing 140 beats a minute, just like my watch had told me.
So you went to the hospital?
Yes, and by the time I got to Emory St. Joseph’s Hospital, about three miles from my house, I was in a full-fledged arrhythmia [an abnormal heart rhythm] and my heart’s ejection fraction [the percentage of blood that is pumped out of the heart with each contraction] had dropped down to 10, which is lethal. For a normal person, it’s 55 or above. If it hadn’t been for the watch, I would have gone to bed that night and I probably wouldn’t have woken up.
How has this changed your approach to health and fitness?
I’ve always been an active guy. I’ve played a lot of tennis, have been a big elliptical user and, up until the past year or so, I would cycle up to 50 miles a week. With heart disease running in my family, I know value of staying active. But recently, one of the medications that a former cardiologist had put me on left me with very little energy and a stressful, busy job made it hard to find time for fitness.
Since this incident, I’ve signed up for a cardiac rehab program, where they attach you to machines and tell you what the optimal exercises are for what you’re trying to accomplish. I need to drop about 25 or 30 ponds and I want to do it in a safe fashion. It’s easy to go to a gym and hop on a machine, but there are proper ways to use machines. If you have a heart condition, you need to take note of that. You don’t want to create any unnecessary stress on your heart.
Have you always been a big believer in tech in healthcare?
I have always been a gadget guy. When you turn 60, you realize, wow, there is mortality in this life. You want to stretch it out as long you can. I know a lot of people who are my age who are only used to having a Timex around their wrist. They don’t want to be bothered with stuff. But I find the Apple Watch to be very useful. I like knowing how many steps I’ve taken, you can set goals, and it alerts you of when you need to stand up and move. Plus, most of the time, on a busy day, you don’t think, “What’s my heart rate?”
What are your thoughts on this kind of technology now?
I had a friend die last June who was a picture of health. He’d run five or six miles a day. His father died of heart disease. But he was more of a Rolex kind of a guy than an Apple Watch kind of a guy. He died on the side of road from a massive heart attack. For me, this incident has been a good reminder that I need to be active every day. Life gets busy and it’s easy—on a rainy day, for example—not to be active. But I also want to get the word out that, if there’s a reasonably-priced device that can monitor your heart rate and do so many other things, why not take advantage of it? If I can figure it out and use it, anyone can.
This interview has been edited and condensed for editorial purposes.