by Jack Berkery
[My aortic valve] keeps on ticking, to put it simply. One can estimate the number of ticks at close to a billion, ticks which I may not have had otherwise.
It was rare in the beginning for anyone to continue running after open heart surgery. I had a heart murmur since early childhood in the 50s, and had been told that at some time, perhaps by my 40s, I would have to sit back and "take it easy" for the rest of my life. That was how doctors thought about heart issues back then. Don't stress it or you'll over use it and maybe lose it. So, I was fairly sedentary up to about age 30, having damaged goods so to speak.
I never participated in sports. The high school doctor banned me from trying out for cross country. A CYO basketball coached offered me $20 to quit the team ... well, OK, I was really that bad. And I was declared 4F, unfit for military duty, when all my contemporaries were being drafted for the Vietnam war. By the 70s, however, medical science began to change and I found I could be somewhat active. I chose running. I don't know exactly when I started. I can remember doing a mile or so in 72 to warm up before tennis in Prospect Park in Troy. I can remember doing a regular 1.5 mile loop around the neighborhood when I first moved to Latham in 73. I can remember where I was when Richard Nixon announced he was resigning in 74. I was out running 3 miles while on vacation in Cape Cod. I began keeping a running log in 1978 while training for my first road race and continued logging every mile and every race since.
There were over 38,000 miles and 475 races by end of 2015. It was one of those races, the Stockade-athon, that sent me to the operating table. I had been under the care of a cardiologist for years after having a minor stroke in 1987. It was said to have been caused by plaque buildup around the defective valve. Even that did not slow me down. I ran PR times at every distance from half mile to half marathon between 88 and 90. I had run the Stockade-athon 10 times by 1990 and anticipated doing well, aiming for 65 or 66 minutes, but it went differently than planned. I ran quite well through the first half, reaching 5 miles in about 35 minutes, then mile 6 hit me like a lead hammer. I slowed considerably and struggled to finish at a couple minutes per mile slower.
I once asked the cardiologist how he would know when it would be time to have the valve replaced. He told me that instead, I would let him know. A few weeks after the 1990 Stockade-athon, having trouble recovering from that race, I went in and told him it was time. I had to stop running for most of 1991 until the surgery was done. July 26 was that day. I was 43 years old.
Recovery had it's rough patches. However, I was back running again in 6 weeks. As noted, it was not a normal course of action, to return to high stress workouts afterwards. It's quite common now. I read of it every day in the cardiac web pages I follow. I know of cardiac cases, valve replacements, pacemakers, stents, and bypass grafts who have gone on to multiple marathons and even Ironman Triathlons. Medtronics, a maker of medical devices, now has a Global Heroes program where they invite 25 people from all over the world to run the Twin Cities Marathon or Ten Miler each year. Many of those selected have artificial heart valves.
25 years ago, though, no one could tell me what to expect, how much or how hard to push. I searched the web, such as it was then, for a kindred spirit and found no one. A company like Medtronics would never have suggested that people with a life sustaining mechanical device of any kind for fear of liability issues when there was no research to say staying fit would improve your chances for survival. Luckily, I had a young and understanding cardiologist who advised me. Go ahead, go back to what you were doing, and keep me posted. It was just little old me, then a few more, then a dozen, then hundreds who took the risk of getting back into our favorite sport and convincing medical science that running was a good thing for post-cardiac recovery in many cases. I returned to what I had been doing, but was always rather cautious.
My first race back was the January 1st 1992 HMRRC Winter Series 3 miler, then called the Sober-up Run. I ran 12 more races that year and pretty much every year thereafter, sometimes more. The peak was 33 races in 2009.
Since open heart surgery, I have done 330 road and track races, thrown discus and shot, swum miles and miles of pool laps, gotten into push-up competitions where I once did 500 in a single session (at age 65), and never suffered the smallest pang of discomfort from the repaired heart. In fact, it got stronger and stronger. That is a far sight better than "take it easy" for the rest of your life.
I'm 68 now and unable to run any longer, but thought I still owed HMRRC one more update since I continued running up to March 2016 before being sidelined. Unable now, not because of anything related to the heart, but due to advanced arthritis in the spine, too much pounding for too long. My last race was the January 1st Winter Series 3.5 mile race, formerly known as the Sober-Up run.
I can still swim to my heart's content, bike a bit too, and do my push-ups every morning, as many as 200 a day at times. No running though, and certainly no regrets. I had 40+ years of running which is more than most undamaged people get.