On January 5, 2012 my son (and 800 other Marines) returned home alive and well from Afghanistan, thank God. I myself was barely alive and not well, it turns out. As the Marine infantry battalion was dismissed in the wee hours of that morning, I tried to run to him, but I could hardly walk because of the severe pain in my chest.
I had been slowing down since the summer and feeling terrible. By Christmas I could barely walk without feeling like someone was pressing a metal bar down on my chest and suffocating me. Being the stupid, stubborn man that I am, I shrugged it off as long as possible until the pain was so bad I called my family doctor. He saw me right away.
The doc took one look at me, and told me to go straight to the ER. He was ordering a heart catheterization for me. Maybe I just need a stent or some kind of medication, I thought.
On Wednesday, January 11 they did the heart cath. It was completely painless (I am such a big baby), but I was in for the shock of my life when the cardiologist looked up at the screen and shouted “Oh my gosh!” (You don’t want to hear your cardiologist say that.) “You can’t get a stent! You need heart surgery! You could drop dead at any minute!” What?? “You gotta be kiddin’ me, doc. You have the wrong guy! I’m a runner! I’m a health food nut! I work out!” The doctor just pointed at the screen and said, “Hey, look at the screen. You have one, two, three, four … FIVE almost total blockages!” I was surviving on only about 15% of my heart.
I was only 49. I am not overweight. Neither my wife nor I could believe I would need such extreme treatment. But the facts are what they are, and together we prepared ourselves and our family for the next day.
My surgery was six hours long. I woke up in the early evening with a hose down my throat and tubes and wires going in and out of every part of my body, it seemed. Later, at about 11 o’clock that night the surgeon told me that they had to open me back up; one of my arteries had “sprung a leak.” One of the grafts was not going to hold.
“What happens if you don’t do the second surgery, doctor?” “Well, then you die.” Oh. “OK, where do I sign for you to cut me open again?” The second surgery in 15 hours was successful. However, I had a tough time snapping out of the anesthesia, so they had to put an oxygen mask on me and “blow it out of my system” for about the next 6 hours.
Recovery from those back-to-back surgeries was no fun, let me tell you. And then having them pull all the hoses and tubes out my throat, neck, chest, and other areas was horrible, although I must say that ALL of my nurses were absolutely superb.
My surgeon came in to see me two days later. I said, “Doc, what happened to me? How did this happen?” He told me it was not uncommon for people my age. I have a long history of heart disease on both sides of my family. It was simply genetic. It was going to happen. “But I don’t eat junk food! I’m a runner! I lift weights! I’m a martial artist! What good did it do to live a healthy lifestyle?”
Next Page: What good did it do? Actually, it did a lot.
The surgeon said this: “It saved your life. If you hadn’t been doing all those things for years you would have dropped dead years ago and you never would have seen it coming. You have so strengthened your heart, that you were operating on only 15%, and you didn’t even know it until the very end. And now you will have a speedier recovery.”
I asked one more question: “Now that you fixed my heart, what do I have to do to make sure this NEVER happens again?” He replied: “Take your meds.” (Check, I do that.) “Next, eat right.” (Check, I do that.) “Lastly, exercise like a madman. You can start in three months when your chest heals. In early April you can do any kind of exercise program you want.” Awesome.
I was thinking, “I have to get focused on something to motivate me to get out of this bed and to start exercising like a madman.”
“Doc, can I run in the Akron Marathon this September?” “Hmmm. How about just the half-marathon this time? Start there.” “Deal. Half-marathon it is!” And so my training began. Actually, it began from the moment I found out I was going to have heart surgery.
My wife and kids and their prayers were my strength. My congregation and all my friends were my strength. My wife was constantly by my side encouraging me every single minute telling me that I would come through this, that I would walk again, and that I would even run again. I honestly do not know where I would be without her. The good Lord was especially good to me in providing all the help and encouragement a human being could ever want. Here is a photo of my son, who had just come from church to give me his strength:
April came, and so I began my strength training. I bought the “Rushfit” DVD series by Georges St.-Pierre. He was a champion in mixed martial arts, so I just loved every minute of it. I was thrilled when I could do one push-up! (Now I can do 50 in 2 minutes!) By the summer I had completely finished Rushfit, and I was now out running 3-4 miles, three times a week. I started doing the P90X workout series from Beachbody.com, blended in with my running. When September rolled around I was running 10-11 miles several times a week. I felt more alive than ever before.
The day came. I had never run a race in my life. The sun rose on 15,000 runners. Over the loudspeakers they said, “Athletes, take your places!” Wow. No one had ever called me an athlete before.!
The long and short of it is that I successfully ran 13.1 miles that day. I saved my energy so that I could run as fast as I could to the finish line. I did not want my wife and kids see me crawling across the finish line. I wanted to know what it felt like to “leave it all on the field.” Well, I did that as I heard my family screaming and cheering when I came running into the stadium. I loved them all so much, because I honestly don’t think I could have recovered if it were not for their prayers and encouragement.
Next Page: So what’s the secret? What inspired him to keep running?
I have run two full marathons and two 5Ks since then, and I plan on running many more races in the future! Here is a photo taken right before a marathon:
I work out six days a week. I have completed several DVD series’ by Beachbody.com: P90X, P90X2, T25, Hardcore, and the Insanity 30 Max. There are ALL excellent. I also supplement the videos with my own weight training with barbells, running, skipping rope, and functional martial arts workouts with the heavy bag. Sometimes I do a hybrid of two of the DVD series.
As for my diet, I am mostly a vegetarian, though I do eat some meat. Once I woke up from surgery, I just did not have cravings for meat anymore. I eat almost no sugar, and nothing from a box. No preservatives, no diet soda.
And, strangely enough, I have supplemented my diet and exercise with listening to music that fills my soul. No one told me to do this, but I figured it would help. Heart surgery wreaks havoc on one’s emotional stability; it is very common for patients to fall into depression, so I thought that music would help me recovery. It did. I absolutely love classical music and opera (though I cannot understand 90% of it), fun Rock and Roll from the ’60s and early ’70s, Celtic and Bluegrass music. It was all food for the soul.
I am not an Olympic athlete, but I feel that at the ripe old age of 54 I am in the best physical and emotional shape of my life. I am the happiest I’ve ever been. Thanks to all my doctors and nurses, my wife and children, and to God who saw fit to keep me alive just a little bit longer.
Life is good. And the best is yet to come!
Here’s more by Jeff Sanders: