While he no longer races competitively, Eric is looking forward to new adventures.
The Murmuring Heart
The first thing that I had to tell myself was that I was not going to die; at least, not immediately. I was there after experiencing chest pains following a bike ride the week before. Initial tests were negative for a heart attack. But during a follow up exam a heart murmur had been discovered, and I had been sent in for an echocardiogram.
The cardiologist might have said, “Mr. Davis, unless we perform emergency open heart surgery to correct your dissected aorta, you are going to suffer a massive heart attack within the next 24 hours.” Of course, he hadn’t. Nor had I suffered a tear in my aorta, and was not, I believed, in any immediate danger of that happening. But as I sat there on the examination table, my wife sitting not three feet away, her head in her hands, I wasn’t entirely certain.
The cardiologist was cautious as he spoke, selecting his words carefully, pausing just long enough after each utterance to gauge my reaction. There were words, which I’ll admit that I didn’t quite understand at the time: ascending root aneurysm, aortic regurgitation, and bicuspid valve. I listened impassively as he spoke, and not without little effort, as he methodically inched his way to his final prognosis: the good news was that following a lengthy rehabilitation I could expect a full recovery. The bad news was that I would have to have open-heart surgery in order to replace both the aortic valve and a sizeable part of the aorta, itself.
The date was August 3, 2015. My life was about to change irrevocably, I reasoned.
The Cyclist at Middle Age
I am – or rather, was Masters-aged Cat 2 roadie. Although I’d had a brief dalliance with cycling as a teenager it wasn’t until my early 30s that I made the fateful decision to buy a bike with the intention of taking up competitive bike racing. During my eleven years of racing I managed to win a few races and claw my way to a Cat 2 upgrade, although, in all honesty, I was never the most prolific winner.
I have to admit that my last two years of racing were not particularly enjoyable, and I seemed to be incapable of getting a result. None of which is directly attributable to my later diagnosis, although in hindsight it did make me wonder if I’d been battling with my congenital heart issues without realizing it. But at the time that I might have experienced the occasional chest pain, shortness of breath or other symptoms associated with an aortic aneurysm frankly wasn’t of great concern, or at least not enough to raise any alarm about my cardiac health.
Being accustomed to dealing with the physical stress associated with intensive aerobic work (what we fashionably refer to today as “suffering”), and possessing what I felt was a fairly high pain threshold and a certain resiliency in this regard; I couldn’t have said that I was symptomatic. That I seemed incapable of racing at a level that I once had; well, I took this as simply another indicator that, at 43, I was no longer a young man.
Although I didn’t know it at the time, my racing career came to a quiet end on July 25th at the San Rafael Sunset Criterium. It was a DNF.
The Murmuring Heart
My wife and I left the cardiologist’s office in silence and later sat in a coffee shop looking over the paperwork that we had been sent home with. It was a lot to digest. We were both stunned by the news, but neither wanted to admit any fear or trepidation about what lay before us. Fortunately or unfortunately, we would have a full three months in which to explore the full range of emotions. Thankfully, there were enough tests and doctor visits to get through that I didn’t have a lot of time in which to obsess on my fate. Which probably made the wait that much easier.
Although three months was an interminably long time in which to wait for anything, I wasn’t exactly in a rush to have my chest opened. I knew that it would mean that it would require quite a bit of downtime while I recovered, and that meant no bike riding. But until then, because I was in otherwise good health, I was allowed to continue riding. Racing however, was definitely not permitted. In retrospect, I think I knew that I would not be returning to competition.
And so, I continued to ride, albeit very slowly, over the next few months. The extra time allowed me to come to terms with my condition and inform my friends and family. I quickly found that the more I talked about it, the better I felt about it. Or at least, the more comfortable I become with the idea of my having open heart surgery. I’d even planned a last group ride with some friends just to tide me over until I was recovered enough to ride again.
The Open Heart
My surgery was scheduled for October 22nd, nearly three months since my initial diagnosis. I was back home recovering five days later. The whole experience was a whirlwind and now, eight months later, I have a difficult time believing it ever happened. That is, until I look down at my chest and note the very impressive 5 inch scar along the length of my sternum punctuated by a pair of dots where the drainage tubes were inserted.
My initial recovery was brief, and I was able to start spinning my legs on the stationary trainer about a month after surgery, and outside within 2 months. However, I realize that I am no longer the rider that I was once was, nor can I expect to reach the same level of fitness I once had. For while my heart is beating stronger and more efficiently than ever, the underlying conditions that led to my aneurysm still exist and my cardiologist strongly cautioned me against returning to competition. My love of the bike remains however, and I am now looking towards other adventures.
I think that I am ok with that.
– Eric Davis, Novato, CA
Photo Credit: Frank Schott