Thursday, January 1, 2015


I hear my valve tick, tick, ticking away. All. The. Time.
And so do others. It's not unusual for fellow passengers in a quiet elevator to be looking for the loud watch I must be wearing.
I remember quite clearly my first conscious thoughts post-surgery: "What is that annoying ticking sound?" And then it occurred to me...that annoying sound is me. I made it. I'm alive. I never felt such elation, relief, and happiness before.
And while I thought that ticking would be annoying to no end I was wrong. 
Instead it serves as a daily..sometimes constant...reminder of how blessed and fortunate I am. 

Saturday, July 12, 2014

How I Got A New Heart Valve and Learned to Love 5K

Let me preface this post by saying that I'm Catholic.  This is important later in the post.
My doctor told me that my second open-heart operation (to replace my pig valve with a mechanical on) was more risky and complicated due to the scar tissue they'd encounter from the first operation.  And the manner in which he said this - and kept repeating it - made it clear that he was very serious:  This may not pan out as well as we'd like.
So - back to being Catholic.  I regularly visit our church's adoration chapel, in which the eucharist (what we Catholics believe to be the actual body of Christ) is housed and on display for people to - well, to adore it!  After these very clear warnings from the doctor, I began visiting the chapel more frequently.
One night, it occurred to me that I had not been making good use of the gifts I had been given.  I'm overweight.  I used to smoke (but stopped right before my first surgery 10 years prior). I don't really exercise.  So, one night I made a deal with The Big Guy:  If I got through the surgery okay, I was going to train for and enter a race - a 5K to start.
Fast forward to the post-surgery days.  About 1 month post-surgery, I began going out for walks around the block in my neighborhood.  I can still remember how dizzy and unsteady I felt.
Two months post-surgery, I went for my first jog...ever.  I had NEVER jogged for exercise before.  I went with a good friend who not only jogs, but runs...marathons.  He was great.  It was clear to me that the speed with which I was 'running' was more like walking to him, but he never made me feel bad.  He was surprised when I had to sit on the curb after just a quarter-mile, but then he wasn't 60 lbs overweight and post- open heart surgery!
By three months post-surgery I was out jogging almost every morning.  I invested in real pair of running shoes.  Bought the right clothes - the kind that wick the sweat away from your body.  The works.  Then came C25K.
C25K is short for Couch to 5K.  The basic tenet is that following this program will get you ready for a 5K in 9 weeks, even if you are a total couch potato.  My program was through an app on my smartphone.  There's many of them out there.
Less than 9 weeks later I had actually jogged the exact distance of a 5K (3.23 miles).  I was pumped - and so signed up for my first 5K.
Just 1 year post-surgery, I ran in the Tex Mex 5K: A fund-raiser race to earn money to support open spaces in our area.  The best part was, the race goes directly in front of my house, so my kids and wife were outside cheering me on as I passed.
And I did - I "ran" the entire thing...slowly, but I ran it.  And I finished.  Almost dead last, but I finished.  I liked it so much I did it again the following year.
I had a running injury which kind of took the wind out of my sails for the next two years, but I am now getting back into it.
I don't write about this to boast.  But rather to point out that you CAN be active after open-heart surgery.  You CAN be active and, yes, be an athlete, even when you are overweight.  Of course be sure to clear everything you do with your doctors, as I did.  But, in the words of Nike, just DO IT!

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

My first nuclear stress test

Let's just take a moment to consider the very name of this beast.


The first and last words already bring about stress - then they through an extra stress right there in the middle just to kick it up a notch.

Ok - I had open heart surgery a few years back as a young man of 30 in order to replace a bicuspid valve that was wonky from birth. That surgery saved my life and I thank God regularly for the technology and skilled professionals that made it all possible.

It did come with a small price to pay: the yearly check up with the cardiologist - hence the stress test.

This was the first time I had a stress test before the surgery - but then it was not a NUCLEAR onee.

Let's start with the preparation. For 24 hours before the test, I could eat and drink nothing with caffiene. Given my 3-4 bottle a day Diet Pepsi habit, this was daunting to start with. "No worries," I thought, "I'll drink decaf."

Nope! Not even decaf - apparently there is still a trace of caffeine in it.

That day, I was allowed some toast for breakfast and then resticted to water only until after the test.

Now we come to the test. I get to the office at 1:15 pm as instructed for my 1:45 pm test. I'm thinking, "Oh they must have paperwork and stuff for me to do which is why they want me there early."
Nope - they just want you there that early.

Then they shave my chest in the areas they will put the EKG leads - I make a joke about this improving my swimming time but the tech doesn't get it. She then slaps an IV lead into my arm and feeds a radioactive "tracer" into my bloodstream. I felt like - well, like nothing. "Now go to the end of the hall, drink two glasses of water and have a seat."

So I did - and then I waited. They make you wait for 45 minutes to make sure you don't have a "reaction" to the tracer. I'm not sure what I should be looking for. A subtle glowing in my fingertips? The ability to climb walls unassisted and to spin webs strong enough to catch a bad guy in?

But the wait is much longer than 45 minutes - it's more like an hour and a half. Then they pull me in to take some weird kind of x-ray of my heart...for 12 minutes - during which time you are not permitted to move. Of course I had no itches or intense need to scratch anywhere - until that test. But I held it together.

Now it was time to get on the treadmill. They hooked me up to an EKG and immediately indicate that I have a "left branch bundle" - something I knew I had since the surgery and was likely caused by the surgery. To be honest, I disn't even know what it was...just that I had it! (Note - I later looked it up, and I wasn't worried). This, however, put the kabash on the treadmill route. The blocked bundle apparently causes "false positives" during the treadmill test. "We'll inject you instead."

Me: "Ummm - with what?"
Them They rattle of the name of a drug.
Me: "Errr - what does it do?"
Them: "It forces blood into your heart so we can study the perfusion."
Me: "Perfusion - right. How is this going to make me feel?"
Them: "You'll feel flush, possibly nauseous, a heaviness in your chest - possibly chest pain, shortness or breathe and a possible headache."
Me: "I already have a headache from the lack of caffeine!"

So they inject and then we all stand in silence as they look at something on some monitor. The three techs now have light discussion about who is going on vacation and where and who is covering for whom. But no one is talking to me. Fine - I know that I like to talk more than I should, but this is feeling downright rude.

Then the symptoms begin to creep in. First the flush feelings - then the weird sensation in my chest. I start to feel warm all over, then my breath starts getting a little quick and short. Then the headache I had going into the test was joined by it's cousin - a gianormous headache that just flew in on it's way to Toledo and wants to hang out during it's layover with my existing headache. It felt like my head would explode. I shared how I was feeling and one of the tech said, "Oh you'll feel better once I inject you with the antidote."

Antidote?!?! Am I in some 1950's spy novel?

So - the test ends and they inject me with the "reversal" (a new and much better term than "antidote") and I do feel better after about a minute. Then it is back to the uncomfortable chairs in the hallway to wait again - this time for another hour or so before a nother tracer injection and a new set of x-rays (and itches).

And then it was done. "Take this sheet to the woman at the front desk." I was released - I drove home, frantically looking for someplace to get a diet pepsi with the whole ordeal behind me.

What's this all about?

I am lucky.

No. I am blessed.

That's what this blog will really be about.
How God has blessed me through what many consider some pretty crappy medical issues.

Maybe you have these same kinds of issues. Or have a friend or loved one who does.

When I was 22 I had a stroke. Well they called it a mini-stroke. But it felt major to me.

And yes, it sucks to have a stroke at any age, but at 22, having just graduated college,  it felt like my life was over.

In fact, that stroke saved my life.  It exposed the fact that my aortic valve was malformed due to a birth defect. It was bicuspid - it was made of 2 flaps of skin instead of 3 like a normal valve.

I recovered from the stroke quickly-in about a week. Then began years of echocardiograms to monitor the health of the valve.

Fast forward 8 years later. I was 30, living in Philadelphia, working at an Internet startup during the "bubble", writing and performing music on the weekends, riding my bike through the crazy Philly traffic, and getting ready to marry my best friend.

I was busy. 

So busy that I was hoping to skip my next regularly scheduled cardiologist appointments.  My wife (then fiancé) nagged me to keep the appointment. And nagged.  And nagged.  So I kept the appointment. And I am glad I did.

I'll never forget that appointment. 

Doc N: "How often are you blacking out?"
Me: "I'm not. I feel fine. Why do you ask that?"
Doc N: "Because your valve is stenotic- it's hard and no longer flapping. You should be passing put regularly. You need open-heart surgery for a valve transplant."

Six weeks later, I had that surgery.

Ten years later I had a second.
But I'll save that for another post.

So that's what this blog will be about.
About how God allowed me to not only experience but to grow from these challenges.

I hope this blog helps other young adults (and those of us who are not as young) who share this strange and sometimes scary journey of heart issues. 

I hope you'll share this blog with others who might benefit from knowing that there's a better day ahead and that there are lessons to be learned from these experiences.

And to know that they are not alone.