“You can do this! Heart disease does not have to win! Take your time. Believe in yourself.”
On July 2nd I went for a run. I was on a mini run streak, and this was my 53rd day of running at least 1 mile. I ran about 2.5 easy miles and went about the rest of my day.
July 3rd was one of my fitness test days. Once a month I was running 3 miles and keeping my heart rate below 130 BPM. In theory, I should be getting faster every month while keeping my heart rate level. I wouldn’t say I had a bad run on July 3rd but my results were slightly worse than my June test. I noticed that I was breathing harder than I should have been.
Over the next two weeks this breathing trouble got worse and on July 18th I had to walk 3 miles back to my car when I could not finish an easy run with a group of friends. I knew something was wrong but really had no clue what the problem could be. The next week I started my way through doctor’s appointments including family doctor, pulmonologist, and cardiologist to see what might be wrong. I passed all the basic breathing tests and an EKG, but the cardiology team was going to dig deeper.
On July 24th we had a trip scheduled to Atlantis in the Bahamas for our youngest son’s high school graduation. I was now seeing some shortness of breath in everyday activities but nothing was keeping me from this trip as he had talked about this for 7 years at least. I probably should not have gone snorkeling or climbed all those water slides but what could I do?
When we got back home I had an Echo heart test on August 3rd. It seemed to go fine as the technician did not send me straight to the hospital. Dr. Pollock was going to call me Tuesday with the full results. Tuesday morning I went for a short walk around the neighborhood and had problems getting back to my house. I woke up my wife and told her something was seriously wrong, and we needed to call 911. The EMTs arrived and even though I was feeling better by then my wife insisted that I get in the ambulance.
They took me into Loudoun Hospital Center Emergency Room for more tests but now were completely focused on heart issues. I should not have been surprised since both of my parents died of heart related issues and both my older brothers had heart problems before they were 50. But I was almost 57, I was a runner, and I watched what I ate! This was not fair!
In the ER, I had another heart Echo and the first thought was it might be myocarditis, but I needed to be transferred to the hospital at Lansdowne to see the cardiologists. My second ambulance ride of the day was from Leesburg to Lansdowne. Dr. Bazaz, Dr. Pollock’s partner, came to see me and said they wanted to do an angiogram Wednesday morning to look for blockages. Hopefully, it would be no big deal, and I might get a stent or two and be on my way. Scary but not a huge deal. But, I am a runner, and I have to be able to get back to running.
Later in the day one of the hospital doctors came in to see me and said that if the angiogram did not go well, I would possibly be a candidate for bypass surgery. Wow! That one hit like a ton of bricks! It was nothing my wife and I had not even thought about during this whole time.
Wednesday morning came, and I was first on the schedule for an angiogram with Dr. Pollock. He told me what to expect, I would be out but not fully sedated and if the blockages were too bad then he would stop, and we would figure out the next steps. When I came out of that I could see by the look on his face that we were not in a good place. He said that I had three very serious blockages around my heart and several others that were bad. I was going to have coronary bypass surgery very soon. He also was very reassuring that this is something that could be fixed, and he was going to find the right place for my surgery. But, I am a runner, and I have to be able to get back to running. The options were Reston Hospital and Medstar Washington Hospital in D.C. Dr. Pollock made calls to both and got me on the schedule to see Dr. Boyce on DC that day and on the surgery schedule for the next day. Things were moving very quickly. My wife’s head was spinning, but everyone kept telling us this was major surgery but something that was fixable.
Wednesday afternoon I was in an ambulance and on my way to DC. That was a long and uncomfortable ride! About an hour after I got checked in my room, and Dr. Boyce was up to talk to us. In a calm and reassuring voice, he told us he does these surgeries every day. I was young and healthy and was going to come out of this fine. But, I am a runner, and I have to be able to get back to running.
Despite all Dr. Boyce’s confidence, I cannot say that I had a restful night. I am sure that I slept a little but not much at all. Early Thursday morning I was up and being prepped for surgery. My wife and younger son arrived, and we got to spend a few minutes in the room together. Then they were able to walk to the operating room with me. Dr. Boyce talked to me again before surgery to let me know that I would be sedated most of Thursday but would wake up Friday and be ready to start my recovery.
The only other thing I remember about Thursday is a few glimpses of when I came out of sedation, then laying there in lots of pain, and pushing the medication button whenever I could. Buzzers and alarms were going off all the time. The day seemed to drag on forever. Eventually, I started to wake up, and they told me it was Friday and my wife would be in soon. Definitely, it was the best moment of my life when she walked in, and I could recognize her and talk to her. Another few hours and I was transferred to a room in the cardiac ward for recovery.
I cannot speak highly enough about the staff and Washington Hospital Center and specifically the Medstar Heart staff. Doctors, nurses, NPs, cleaning staff, food staff, volunteers, … My family and I were well taken care of during my whole stay. These days during my recovery I started to walk down the hall when I could, had drains and IV’s removed of drains, adjusted to new medications, and learned how to get in and out of bed while feeling like the weakest person on earth. For a little , I did faint in the shower the night before I was to be discharged. But, who doesn’t dream of being carried naked from the shower by a roomful of nurses?
Monday afternoon, less than a week after the 911 call, I was in the car with my wife and on my way home. Recovery was going to take time but everything was going to be fine. I was walking 10 minutes twice a day and was to continue that until my follow-up visits. Other than those walks I was stuck in bed and am so thankful for Netflix and Amazon Prime. I also had the internet and quickly started searching for information on “bypass surgery” and “return to endurance sports” after these surgeries.
One of the first sites that I found was IronHeart Foundation. Dave Watkins responded very quickly to my first email. It was fantastic to see there was a group out there that knew the battle in front of me and had already worked through all of the issues that I was about to tackle. It is one thing to hear encouraging words from family but to hear from Dave and read stories on the IronHeart website is much more. These people have climbed the mountain that was in front of me. They have faced the uncertainties that I needed to work through. It was possible, and I had a team I could lean on when needed.
Three weeks after surgery I had follow up visits with both Dr. Pollock and Dr. Boyce. Both were thrilled with my progress. The advice from Dr. Boyce was that I just woke up from a three week nightmare, and I was to look forward and live my life. Of course these good doctor reports led to the worst night of my recovery. That night I woke up about 2 AM in a sweat and full out panic attack. Suppose they were wrong. Suppose I didn’t recover. Suppose I couldn’t run anymore. Suppose something went wrong, and I was heading back to the hospital. I paced the floor for hours. When my wife woke up we talked, and she reassured me that she would be there no matter what was in our future. I listened and heard her this time. I was going to be OK. I was going to be more than OK. I was going to come back. I was going to run, and I was going to get back to the performance level that I was in the spring of 2015. I was going to do this with the support of my family, my old friends, and my new friends from the IronHeart Foundation.
In early September, I started with the Cardiac Rehab facility at the Lansdowne Hospital. The nurses and rehab staff there are nothing short of spectacular. They worked with me through my walking days and when I was allowed to run 1 minute on the treadmill, eventually, I think it was the best day of my recovery.
I am now over six months from my surgery. I am running about 15 miles a week and have finished six 5K or longer races. I have improved from 45 minutes down to 27 minutes for the 5K and am ready to go faster. I need to see Dr. Pollock for one more visit and then pass the stress test before I can upgrade my training. I want to be one of the guys who the IronHeart Foundation can point to in the future to motivate others who are just starting this comeback.
Often I open the Foundation website just to reassure myself that this is possible. Dave has done this. Others have done this. You can do this! Heart disease does not have to win! Listen to your doctors and support staff. Lean on your family and friends. Take your time. Believe in yourself. Look forward and live your life.
– Kevin Shea, Hamilton, Virginia