Heart Surgery: A Personal Story

(Before starting any fitness routine, contact your doctor for a complete physical and advice to ensure that you are healthy and have no underlying problems that could worsen during an exercise regimen.)

It’s Not The End Of The World
Each individual is unique and the problems they face are different. Prevention is always the best way to approach ones health. Some problems are not solved by simply doing one thing and may be very complex. Always consult your doctor on any issues and before starting any exercise program.

There are many individuals each day being diagnosed with heart problems or heart disease. These range from blocked arteries, hypertension, and a multitude of other problems. One thing that must be kept in mind, its not the end of the world. A serious problem but one that once found can be managed. Much of recovery relies on your state of mind. Resolving to overcome the problem and the willingness to work within your doctor’s guidelines and direction, anyone can continue to enjoy a long life. Evidence has shown that the spirit and the frame of mind of an individual have a dramatic effect on recovery after surgery, and their overall health.

I can only talk about my personal experience and I know others have had other results, good or bad. I can only express what I have come to know and the relevance each part of recovery and how my mind and body worked together to helped to come to the point that I am at now.

About The Heart
Basically, the hearts primary function is to force blood to the body and provide oxygen poor blood to the lungs, which oxygenizes the blood to return to the rest of the body. The blood provides nourishments to the organs and tissues. It is the hardest working muscle in our body and without it we would not survive. It is one of the most fascinating parts of our body for without it we would not function. It is made up of 4 valves that direct the flow of blood. These are the mitral, aortic, tricuspid and the pulmonic valves. They are designed to flow one way and to close tight after they have pumped blood out of the heart. The Blood Pressure is a measurement of the force the blood is pumped in to the arteries and the resistances of the arteries in regards to blood flow. It’s measured in millimeters of mercury (mm Hg).

Systole is the contraction, or time of contraction, of the heart. The Systolic pressure is the estimate of how hard the heart is working and the amount of strain against the arterial walls during a ventricular contraction. The Diastole is the relaxation phase of the heart. The Diastole pressure is the amount of pressure of the cardiac cycle as the blood pressure decreases. The Diastolic is an indication of the ease that blood flows from the arterioles into the capillaries.

A healthy optimal (excellent) blood pressure level will have a Systolic blood pressure at or below 120 mm Hg (millimeters of Mercury) and the Diastole between 70 to 80 mm Hg. This will also change as aging occurs. A good or normal blood pressure level will be between 120-130 mm Systolic and 80-85 Diastole. If you’re healthy, your arteries are muscular and elastic. They stretch when your heart pumps blood through them. How much they stretch depends on how much force the blood exerts. Your heart beats about 60 to 80 times a minute under normal conditions. Your blood pressure rises with each heartbeat and falls when your heart relaxes between beats. Your blood pressure can change from minute to minute, with changes in posture, exercise or sleeping, but it should normally be less than 140/90 mm Hg for an adult. Blood pressure that stays above this level is considered high.

Heart disease can strike anyone, young or old at any time. It is not unheard of for children to be diagnosed with heart problems and it seems that is happening at an even more rate than before. Some of this may be due to our ability today to hear about these things with greater ease or it could be a sign that we are just not taking care of ourselves. But one thing that is evident, we are more sedentary today than ever before and along with poor diets and eating habits have not helped our cause to be heart healthy.

Being skinny or within body weight is not a guarantee that you won’t have heart problems. If you are within weight standards it just means you may not have other risk problems. When we talk about heart disease we generally think of someone who is out of shape and does not exercise or eat properly. We have this mindset that only someone who is overweight will only have this problem. The kids today are at greater risk than before due to improper nutrition and exercise. I believe that in the future we will see more problems arise and statistics will increase on heart disease affecting younger adults than ever before.

Finding Out You Have A Problem
Finding out that you have a problem is one of the most traumatic experiences no matter who you are and what kind of physical shape you are in. One of the first things that goes through someone’s mind is “what do I do now?” Your individual mortality is suddenly real and you wonder what will come next. It sometimes takes time for it to register and for anyone to come to terms with the situation.

In 1983, while still on active duty in the Navy, I was diagnosed with an Aorta Insufficiency. For those who may not be familiar with that medical condition, it is a situation when the aortic valve does not function correctly. The aortic valve is like a one-way door; it opens to allow blood to flow from the left ventricle (the main pump) so it can be pushed to the aorta. From the aorta, blood moves into the arteries and through the body to your cells. The aortic valve closes when you heart rests to keep blood from flowing backward into the heart.

When your aortic valve does not close properly, some of the blood that is pumped into the aorta leaks back (regurgitates) back through the faulty valve. In turn your body does not receive enough blood, so to compensate your heart must work harder to make up for it. This compensation over time will tend to cause your heart to enlarge to pump more blood. Over time, you may have symptoms of shortness of breath and fatigue. And it generally continues to get worse over time.

When I found out, I did a lot of research on this condition. I found it very useful and as they say “knowledge is power”. I tended to start looking at my habits and what I was doing in regards to exercise and my eating habits. Though the doctors told me that there was really nothing that could be done in this regard. To correct the situation would require an operation and at that time, I was not at that point. Things were not critical. I did keep a close eye and monitor what I was doing to stay in my current condition as long as possible.

Initially it was a real surprise and of great concern when I found out. I had one doctor tell me that my career was over. Needless to say, I did not see him again. I handled the news fairly well but I continually ask questions and did my research.

Time To Operate
I was required to have annual check ups to monitor my heart to ensure that it did not enlarge to the extent that my symptoms would be more severe. Though I must say, I did not seem to have many symptoms or problems. Or should I say, I never recognized any. I had check ups for 20 years when in 2002 after returning from an overseas tour, during my check up, the doctor informed me that I would be required to have a valve replacement. You can only imagine the shock. I had been active for 20 years dealing with this situation and now I was being told that I would have to have open-heart surgery.

To say I was in shock would be putting it lightly. Anyone who has ever had news like this, knows exactly what I am talking about. It took awhile for it to all sink in but once I had come to terms with it, I dedicated myself to keeping a positive attitude. I was ready to tackle this challenge and deal with all that comes with it.

I was in good shape and had been working out for a long time. I had run several half marathons and done some extreme events while stationed over seas while in remote locations. Before returning to the main land I had recently competed in a multi-faceted race that involved a 7-member team. The race was set in stages, with a swim, sailing, off road bike, two off road runs and an on road bike portion. This particular race I had ended up doing both the off road bike leg (8 miles) through jungle paths and one of the 3 mile runs. To say the least it was a challenge. To have accomplished this and then being told that I was going to have a valve replacement, put me into a confused state. I was told that I should limit my exercise until after the surgery and for someone who was in good shape and had a regular routine of resistance and aerobic exercise this was one of the most difficult times.

About 3 months after my diagnosis and discussion with the surgeon, my surgery was scheduled. Needless to say it went smoothly with no major complications. One of the things to point out is that I was still in great shape. I went in for the surgery on a Thursday morning and was beginning to walk around on Friday. Saturday my surgeon came in to see how I was doing and ask when I would like to go home. I responded that I would like to be home by Sunday to watch football. His response was that it could happen. He and many others were surprised and amazed with my progress. I was home on Sunday and took my first walk around the neighborhood that day. It was slow but I made it.

Living With the Results
The one thing that I cannot stress enough is “recovery is a state of mind”. If you have a positive attitude, it can do nothing but help in a rapid recovery. Think positive and gain the knowledge about your body and mind and use it to help in your recovery.

I was restricted to my activity for several months but by December I was back in the weight room. I had set a regular walking routine, as I was not allowed to run, and held to it religiously. I was determined to get back to full activity as quickly as possible. I continually pressed myself to do more and to continue to improve my ability to do more. I wanted to get back to normal as soon as possible. At my 6 month check up I discussed with my cardiologist of the possibility of running a marathon. With his approval and somewhat amazement, I began training.

After exactly 1 year 1 month and 1 day of having open-heart surgery, I ran my very first marathon at the age of 47. I completed the 2003 Marine Corps Marathon with a time of 5 hours and 40 minutes. Not bad for someone who less than a year ago was still in recovery. I owe much of this accomplishment to keeping active.

Exercise, Exercise, Exercise
The one thing that is stressed in all research is exercise to help in prevention and to improve your overall health. Even if it just beginning by walking on a regular basis and light resistance training. Aerobic exercise is an important part of any program and should be done on a regular basis. Keeping a healthy heart requires work, sometimes we are just born with what we have but we can work with what we are given. With research and advances in technology in the future heart disease and problems encountered may be fixed with a minimum of invasive surgery.

Its been over 4 years now and my heart is doing fine. I am a fitness trainer and working out on a regular basis and helping others to reach their goals and become heart healthy. I can tell you that in my case, I was glad of how good of shape I was in and contribute it to my rapid recovery. If you are not doing regular exercise, it’s not to late to start. Begin today and you will be helping to contribute to a healthier heart tomorrow.

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