At mile 5.2, it happened. And I had another 4.1 miles of my 15K race to go.
It happened as a single sharp and very pronounced pain in the center of my chest. Immediately I saw ‘stars,’ but I kept on running. That was stupid.
At about mile 7, I started to feel very tired, but I kept running. That was stupid.
At about mile 8, I started coughing up a red foaming substance and my breathing became extremely labored, but I kept running. Yes- that was stupid too.
I crossed the finish line and immediately went to my car to call my wife Karen, who happens to be an ER nurse. Karen knew I was running and she asked me the same question she has every time I called her post run, “How was your run?”
But this time I didn’t answer with my typical “I finished” response. No this time I told her what I just experienced and without hesitation she said “GO TO THE ER!”
I’m a guy, and do guys listen to their wives all the time? Not this guy. At least back then I didn’t. Instead of going directly to the suggested ER, I went to Cracker Barrel for breakfast. Yes… that was stupid… VERY stupid.
I eventually made it back home where we drove to the ER, arriving some five plus hours post the initial symptoms.
A few tests later including a heart ultrasound conducted by a very nice middle-aged technician quickly identified my problem – a busted mitral valve.
It was determined that during my run, my chordae tendineae separated from the mitral valve creating a ‘wide open’ scenario that forced blood back into my lungs, which was obviously what I was coughing up during the race. This scenario was described to me as “not a ‘life continuing’ condition”.
The next step was emergency open heart surgery in the hope of repairing my damaged valve. By this time I was out of it. Even with full oxygen I was barely able to breathe, very weak and obviously unable to make any proper medical decisions. So the heart surgeon talked to my wife and presented her with the following three treatment scenarios:
- Repair the valve with Gore Tex to mimic the damaged chordae tendineae- this was the best ‘return to normal’ scenario.
- Replace the damaged valve with a ‘pig valve.’ This option would allow me to continue to exercise/run although this valve would need to be replaced in 10 years; or
- Replace the valve altogether with a mechanical valve. This was the least desirable since I would have to give up running as my exercise of choice.
My very gifted heart surgeon was able to repair my damaged mitral valve with Gore Tex, and while I’m nowhere near as fast as I was ‘pre-heart surgery’, I am still able to enjoy running. (NOTE: I send my heart surgeon a Christmas card every year with one word on it… “THANKS!”)
This day should not have been a surprise to me.
In the late 80’s, I was diagnosed with a mild case of mitral valve prolapse. I was basically released and told that if I felt anything different to contact a cardiologist.
I never did. That was stupid. I had a problem and I should have followed-up, but I did not. This problem then manifested itself in the running ‘almost death experience’ detailed above some 25 years later. I learned my lesson. I’m now seen at Texas Children’s Adult Congenital Heart Disease program, and I follow up with my doctor.
Finally, some words of advice:
- Don’t ignore your heart issues. You certainly can’t wish them to go away.
- Always listen to your cardiologist. He/she knows what’s best for your heart.
- There is LIFE after a heart episode and I’m a living example! (I’ve run nine full marathons since my ‘little heart issue’.)
- Never hide in a shell… live life!
- And guys…always listen to you wife, especially if they have medical training.
Listening to my body and my wife… two of the SMARTEST things I now do!