Pierre Gagnon says that a bike crash may have saved his life and revealed his cardiac disease.

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I like to think that we can all make a difference at a certain level during our lifetime. For me, it took quite some time to realize this and to figure out how. I think it is becoming more and more clear now.

I would like to share some of the things that I’ve learned along the way since finding out that I have a cardiac disease.

My heart disease story started in the fall of 2010. I was in what was without a doubt the best shape of my life. I had always been active, doing cross-country and alpine ski, road and mountain bike since I was young. But as a member of a road cycling club, I managed to log over 6000 km that year.

The cycling season was drawing to an end in Canada, and I accompanied a group of seasoned riders for a morning ride. While riding a quiet country road the front wheel of my bike touched that of the rider in front of me. I had a nasty crash, and my helmet prevented me from having lifelong injuries. While checking me out, the doctor noticed that the diameter of my aorta was larger than normal and referred me to a hospital for cardiac patients.

They quickly found that I was part of the 1-2% of the population with a bicuspid aortic valve and that was the reason of my enlarged aorta.

At first, my surgeon recommended that I limit my frequency to 120 beats/minute which was quite a struggle if you want to practice sports. I was rigorous trying to respect the limitations.

At the time, I was doing workout under the supervision of health professionals at the gym associated with the hospital where I am monitored. One day, a kinesiologist told me that other patients with similar heart valve issues did not have such limitations for their maximum heartbeat. He told me he would talk with the surgeon and get back to me.

The kinesiologist requested that I do an effort test on a bike while monitoring frequency and pressure. The results were good and the maximum heart frequency for me was raised to 145 bpm, which was much easier to respect.

A year after, while going for my regular checkup I was asked if I would participate in a research project on patients with aortic aneurysm and sport. I accepted and was fortunate enough to be asked to do a VO2 max test.

The test showed that regardless of my congenital heart defect, I had great aerobic health. That was reassuring and meant I could keep on practicing the sports I loved.

In December of last year, I had my annual checkup following the usual heart echography to monitor the state of my aortic valve. My doctor told me that the stenosis of the valve was getting from fair to severe although I had no symptoms. He recommended a valve replacement and correction of the aneurysm within the next two years. As I was still very active and never had a treadmill test, he recommended that I do the test to make sure everything was under control.

A few weeks later, I performed the treadmill test. They explained the whole thing to me with the number of minutes where people are at their maximum and they have to stop. The test was under the supervision of a cardiologist. He told the nurse to stop the test as I was at the top end and could still speak properly. He said that the recovery after the surgery would go very well for me seeing the level of fitness that I was in. He encouraged me to stay active but not to not seek lifting heavy weights.

This whole story taught me important things.

Lesson number 1 learned: staying in good shape helps the overall recovery when your body is physically and emotionally battered.

The doctor that treated me after my bike crash said that my good recovery was greatly improved by the fact that I was in a very good shape when I had the crash.

Lesson number 2 learned: some positive can come from a negative event.

I never had any symptom of having a bicuspid aortic valve. The surgeon said that if not discovered by chance following the bike crash, I could have had a dissection of the aorta and die like some athletes do when they collapse at the finish line after a violent effort. Maybe the bike crash that I had saved my life. No one can say for sure, but I like to think so.

Lesson number 3 learned: physical exercise while keeping the body healthy helps being creative and finding solutions to problems.

During this period, I made a job change going from being a manager in industry to being a manager in a government agency. The transition was far from easy when you’re used to working with people that all work towards the same objective. During periods of intense stress because of games being played behind my back, I never stopped riding my bike, skiing or working out. These periods made all the difference and probably helped in not making my heart valve problem worse. It definitely helped me not having a depression during this period.

 Lesson number 4 learned, ahead of a major surgery like the one I will face, a healthy body gives us the best chances to have a speedy recovery and return to normal life.

The comments made by the cardiologist while I was doing the treadmill test confirmed the benefits of being active.

Finally, I just want to say that if you have a cardiac issue of any kind, make sure you talk to your doctor to see what kind of sport is possible for you. You might be at a lower level or pace, but you will still reap the benefits of making your body work. Your mind will get as much positive effects as your body whatever the situation you’re facing. You’ll see things with a better focus.

Life is a journey, never stop improving the person you are!

Never forget the quote from Bob Marley that says: “You never know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have”.

– Pierre Gagnon, Québec City, Ca