I was born with congenital heart disease. When I was just weeks old, doctors discovered my bicuspid aortic heart valve, meaning I was born with two leaflets and not three, from a slight murmur. Many people have this condition and are able live a healthy life without incident, but I wasn’t that lucky.
Growing up I was an active child. I played basketball through high school and was heavily into karate competitions which I still participate in today. I hold a 5th degree black belt kenpo and black sash in kung fu.
When I was about to turn 22, I started feeling ill with odd cold and flu symptoms. Progressively, over the next week my knuckles turned black and blue. My doctor confirmed through a transesophageal echo, which is a test that goes through mouth and produces pictures of your heart , that I had an abscess on my bicuspid aortic heart valve.
That diagnosis earned me a two week stay in Boston Med Center where they performed open heart surgery to replace my aortic heart valve with human tissue valve. I was young and didn’t want a mechanical valve. I was told at the time that the tissue valve would last 10-15 years. And when it failed, I would require a mechanical heart valve.
Almost seven years later, I was not feeling well again. I associated this with life changes. I was feeling overwhelmed and stressed. I had put on weight. One afternoon I was riding a bike with my friends and going up a hill that I’d ridden 150 times in my life. This was a hill that I could climb with my eyes closed. While attempting to ride the hill that day, I felt like I had a weight on my chest and had to get off and walk my bike up the hill. Anyone who rides a bike knows that you can’t do this and not ever hear the end of it from your friends. And I still haven’t.
Within a few weeks, I had put on 35 pounds and felt miserable. I would go to bed and shut my eyes and wonder “Is this going to be it?” “Will I wake up?” Lots of things were going through my mind. I couldn’t sleep flat, couldn’t keep anything down, and yet was still gaining weight. I went to the hospital and they ran tests. They couldn’t find anything “wrong” and sent me home.
When you are in heart failure, even walking up a flight of stairs is torture. I remember walking several steps and having to stop and lean against the wall. I played mind games with myself. I told myself that “It’s going to be fine tomorrow.” I didn’t realize that I was not going to be okay. I was sick, and I’m stubborn. If it wasn’t for Brooke, my wonderful wife, I would have stayed home and not gone to the hospital. The doctors said if I had waited another two or three days that I would have gone to sleep and that would have been lights out for good. If it weren’t for Brooke, she would be writing this story and not me.
Brooke, my wife, had enough and drove me to Boston to Tufts Medical Center. When we checked in, my attending team gasped. They knew without conducting a physical exam that I was having category 4 heart failure. Category 4, as explained to me, was where your organs are shutting down and preparing for end of life. The tissue valve had totally failed after seven years. It had deteriorated so badly that there was barely anything left. I am normally 180 pounds and weighed 225 when I checked in; 45 pounds were fluid.
I was in very bad shape. The doctors didn’t tell me at the time, but I was one of sickest patients that they had ever cared for. One of the team members told me at my 10th year anniversary visit that she went home every night and cried because she didn’t think I would survive. She thought I would die in the hospital.
I spent 5 ½ weeks in the hospital. The first two weeks were focused on removing fluid out of my body. They used high amounts of diuretic therapy in an attempt to get me to an operable state. My wife would leave to go to cafeteria to grab a meal and come back to tell me that my legs looked smaller. During this time, I decided that if I survived, I was going to do an Ironman Triathlon; and this gave me hope.
Finally, I was able to have the lifesaving surgery. Two days later, I began walking my training laps. Every day, I increased my walk laps. I spent another 2 ½ weeks to get my iron level where it needed to be. The thought of doing the Ironman kept me going during those dark times. Once all of the fluid was gone, I weighed 145 pounds.
I set out to do an Ironman as my ultimate achievement. I wasn’t sure if it would take me 5 or 10 years, but I was willing to do what it took. Year one after my second open heart surgery was spent getting life back together – professionally, physically, and mentally. Those mind games were constant, and I learned to overcome them. I was scared to get on bike. I was taking coumadin and would think, “What if get hit by a car will I bleed to death?”
The second year post surgery, I became more settled and participated in a few Sprint triathlons. I turned my “what if’s” into “what nots” and knew that I could do triathlons safely. I was feeling great! So, Brooke and I decided to go to Ironman Lake Placid to volunteer. I signed on the dotted line to compete the next year.. Training began and I worked with a coach strategically and methodically. We did a lot of training on the bike trainer to help with my fear of having an accident.
Three years post surgery on July 25, 2010, I became an Ironman. It was an amazing day and something that I will never forget for the rest of my life. When I crossed the finish line I felt euphoric. My goal was met, and I felt like I could conquer any challenge life brought my way.
Several weeks after Ironman, I received a phone call from Dave Watkins. When we finally connected, I can still remember sitting outside the bagel shop, and he told me about Ironheart. We immediately connected as we have a lot of similarities in our heart stories. He asked me if I wanted to be part of the team, and, of course, I said “Yes!” A few years later Dave had a crazy idea to get athletes together to do Ironman Arizona and film it. So, we signed up for Ironman Arizona and training began again. A month before the race, my cardiologist noticed a “change,” and I dropped out of race on his advice. I still went and cheered on the Ironheart team, and it was an amazing experience. It was a good thing that I had pulled out of the race because I wouldn’t have been able to participate as I came down with wicked food poisoning. The “change” in my heart, thankfully, was nothing.
Having just celebrated my 10th year anniversary from my life-threatening incident, my life is rich and full. I’m thankful to own my own gym, Jeremy’s BootCamp, and to be able to do what I love for a living. I’m a personal trainer and a coach for athletes. I enjoy helping my clients achieve their goals and to do things athletically that they never thought possible.
I now have the green light to compete again. I’m going to return to Ironman Arizona on November 20, 2017 and finish what I started. With the support of my wife, Brooke, who is an amazing mother, and our three beautiful girls, Elliana, Bryn, and Isla Jane, I am confident in my ability to cross the finish line once again.