My Heart-Inspired Journey

By Bob Alexander, Sky Ridge Cardiac Rehab Patient

On December 23, 2009, I became a member of a very elite club, the open-heart surgery survivor club. To become a member, the cost is high and members our required to have a near death experience. I was lucky, because mine happened during a Stress Echocardiogram test at my cardiologist’s office. My heart valve defect went undetected my entire life until that day -- October 22, 2009.

My open-heart surgery took place on December 23, 2009 to repair a serious heart valve defect called Mitral Valve Prolapse (MVP) with Mitral Regurgitation of 40%, and a dangerous Arrhythmia called Polymorphic Ventricular Tachycardia. Here’s my story…

I started running in 1979 before there were fancy high-tech running shoes; I have been a runner for 31 years. I also have been a cyclist for 15 years, and a triathlete for 7 years. I have completed numerous marathons, a 60-mile ultra-marathon on the track, several 100+ mile cycling events, Ride-the-Rockies, many triathlons of varying distances, and even a full Ironman triathlon in 2003 (2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride, followed by a 26.2 mile marathon). Yes all on the same day. I’m no world-class athlete, just an aging baby-boomer who enjoys the Colorado outdoors.

My heart journey started when my wife Karen pushed me to get a physical the summer of 2009. Karen was relentless about me getting a physical. “Bob did you make a doctor’s appointment yet,” she would ask. Heart defects and heart disease don’t run in my family and, in my mind, I had no reason to ever think I might have a problem with my heart. I always got a blood test, which never had any indication of a problem and always got a clean bill of health. Being a typical guy, I came up with every excuse I could. Finally, I gave in and saw my personal physician. I will never forget that day. “Bob, you have a heart murmur,” the doctor said. I have what? Just two months later I had open-heart surgery to repair a severe genetic heart valve defect and I currently take a beta-blocker to control a dangerous Polymorphic Ventricular Tachycardia, which are just fancy words for a dangerous and life-threatening Arrhythmia I still have. A defibrillator is still a possibility for me. But I’m not here to talk about my heart surgery. I am here to talk about life after heart surgery. Just because I’m a member of the heart survivor club doesn’t mean I have stop doing the things a love such as running and cycling

Cardiac Rehabilitation

That’s why I feel Cardiac Rehabilitation is so important and a great transition back to the real world.

Perhaps you have experienced or know someone who has experienced Cardiac Rehabilitation. Oddly enough, there are some people who opt not to complete cardiac rehab and stop early. Personally, I cannot understand why. With nurses and exercise physiologists monitoring you on sophisticated equipment while you begin the slow process to regain your strength, I could not feel safer. Research by the Cleveland Clinic shows participants who complete a Cardiac Rehab program have a 25 to 30 percent reduction in fatal heart events. That’s all I needed to hear. Count me in. So, why would anyone chose to quit and stay home is beyond me. When I was attending, I actually heard a person say, “Oh, I can just walk at home. I need to go back to work and don’t have the time. I feel fine now and will be careful.” Does that sound familiar? That is exactly how they initially became a member of that elite club -- the open-heart surgery club. Except, the second time they might not be so lucky. Don’t be selfish because it’s not about you anymore.

Recovering from heart surgery is currently one of the most difficult things I have ever done in my life. For me, it’s a challenge both mentally and physically. Because I have been running for 31 years, many people think it’s easy for me. Trust me it’s not. Just ask my wife or son and training buddyTyler (23 years old). It is difficult. Nutrition, eating right, getting enough sleep, knowing when to push and when to hold back are crucial. Once I was able to run several miles, with walking breaks of course, I couldn’t wait to enter my first running event. It was this year’s Bolder Boulder in May 2010. I made it through that 10k feeling fine because I applied what I learned at the Sky Ridge Cardiac Rehab Center. I ran for 8 to 10 minutes then walked for a minute or so and focused on how I felt instead of the clock. Believe me I made sure I had plenty of water and electrolytes, too.

Before my heart valve surgery I could get away with not warming up properly, and not drinking enough water before, during and after a run, or eating too many simple carbs. But what I found was that now more then ever before, I need to pay attention to how I feel and listen to my body if I expect to get stronger. For example, if I do not warm up, my heart rate skyrockets into the danger zone. Getting enough sleep, eating right, drinking enough fluids, and not having too much caffeine are crucial as well as knowing when to run, walk, and even stop and sit. Last week, I did not feel right, so I stopped after only 8 minutes and did some easy stretching instead. The next day I felt much better and did a 4-mile run. I’m sure this sounds like a commercial. But I’m serious. During the summer it is so hot in Colorado I always wear a fanny pack with water, GU & electrolytes. At this point, I feel better then I have in probably ten years. But it still will take perseverance and motivation to regain my strength. No worries there, all I need to do is think about my kids, twins Tiffany & Tyler, 23, and Kyle, 26 or my wife Karen. That’s all the motivation I need. Besides, Tyler usually rides with me on the weekends and I could not do it without him. Tiffany is a nursing student and she takes my blood pressure and watches me to make sure I’m ok after my workouts.

Both my cardiologist and thoracic surgeon told me I would be able to do anything after surgery I had done previously. Well, before heart surgery, I enjoyed running marathons. So, I have decided to run the 2010 NYC marathon on November 7, only 10 months after open-heart surgery. This summer (2010), I will also be completing many other road races and even several cycling races including one called the Triple By-Pass, which is 120 miles in one day over 3 mountain passes (Squaw Pass -11,200’, Loveland Pass – 11,990’ and Vail Pass-10,500”). In August, I will also be completing in a grueling cycling race called the Bob Cook Memorial Mt. Evans Hill Climb from Idaho Springs to the top of Mt. Evans, Colorado at 14,250 ft. Then I will begin to ramp up my training for the 2010 NYC Marathon. My cardiologist will be in New York with me for the marathon.

No I am not crazy. I am doing these running and cycling events to show that life is not over just because I have a heart defect and V-Tach arrhythmia. I was cleared by my doctor and thoracic surgeon to do the 2010 NYC marathon and extreme cycling events, and was also given specific guidelines to adhere to, which I will do. I will be wearing a heart rate monitor, a fanny pack with water, GU and electrolytes, listening to how I feel, and following what I learned from Connie, Emily, Mandy and Molly at Sky Ridge Medical Center’s Cardiac Rehab Center.

Most importantly, how could I look my kids in the eye and tell them anything is possible if you put your mind to it and try your hardest if I choose to take the easy road? At this point in my life, family, fitness and health have a whole new meaning for me.

I want to help my oldest son Kyle move back to Denver someday. (He lives in NY)

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I want to fulfill my son Tyler’s dream to run a marathon with his Dad

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I want to be there to walk my daughter Tiffany down the isle when she gets married.

It’s not about me anymore. I think this quote from Helen Keller tells it all.

“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired and success achieved.” Helen Keller