How A Tiny Problem Saved My Life
A massive grin creased my face as I touched the wall for the final turn. I was just 25 meters away from completing the swim portion of my first triathlon. I followed the curve of the black line and popped out of the pool to begin the 17 mile bike segment. Fast forward five years and forty races later, you could say I was hooked.
Combining a love for endurance racing and cutting edge science from functional medicine, my performance improved and a few sponsors came calling. As a busy physician and amateur athlete, this was an exciting proposition. Cool gear and apparel along with paid entry fees were just part of the perks.
The wake-up call came just a few years later. My triathlon coach had slated a grueling training block in preparation for an upcoming race. I dove into the sessions with vigor but began to note a twinge of pain. Over the following weeks, a slight ache grew into unbearable pain and the diagnosis of a sports hernia. Despite conservative treatment, it quickly became apparent my season was over.
Due to a weakened core, a simple slip on a wet floor a few weeks later produced a jarring injury to my spine. Frustrated by my physical limitations and a recent job change left me with ample time to explore and learn. I plowed ahead with a fellowship in functional medicine. The faculty are passionate teachers and learning cutting edge therapies to improve performance and longevity captivated my attention.
After a weeklong seminar, I came away with a new appreciation of vascular biology and the genuine risk of dying from a heart attack. Despite the indestructible attitude many physicians and most triathletes possess along with my years of physical training, I learned my bravado was nothing short of naivete.
Self-directed testing and imaging have fostered a new era of patient-directed care. The Quantified Self movement is replete with data-driven fanatics capitalizing on the emerging science. That said, I wanted in on the action and ordered a coronary calcium CT scan of my heart. The preliminary results were perfect with a score of zero.
A few weeks later, I noticed a letter from the hospital peeking out amongst a pile of bills and catalogues. Although tempted to file it away for later as I already knew the results, an unseen force compelled me to open it immediately.
A small gasp escaped my lips as I read the summary: Calcium score zero, however, a large thoracic aneurysm is noted. Prompt follow up required. My world was now irreversibly altered.
Had my triathlon season not been derailed by injury, I would have plowed ahead with training, racing, and competition. I had signed up for several challenging events and was looking forward to a Spartan Race. That fateful letter from a cardiologist changed everything – and saved my life.
The dynamic changes during strenuous exercise are known to cause aneurysms to rupture or dissect. The end result for most patients is rapid death once a dissection has occurred.
Like nearly every patient with an aneurysm, I had no symptoms and no warning that imminent danger lies ahead. Many experiences bring short term pain and despair, but the power and beauty of life’s lessons are revealed in time for those willing to listen.
I am blessed to have a wonderful family who supports each other as we embark on this unplanned detour on life’s journey. I couldn’t do it without them and hope to share their stories and wisdom along the way.
What I want to share is the unique perspective of a physician turned patient and provide an in-depth look at what it’s like to undergo open heart surgery. I’ll be sharing thoughts, rants, anger and anxiety as this journey unfolds. For those that want a more intimate experience, I’m working on that with my team as the process unfolds.
The project is titled: Healing The Heart – A Behind The Scenes Look at Open Heart Surgery, Maximizing Recovery and Minimizing Pain. A candid look at what to expect and videos from inside a world-renowned medical facility. It’s what you need to know about preparing for open heart surgery, getting through the hospital phase and maximizing your recovery.
You can sign up below to get notified when the project is released Spring 2017.
My goal is to provide a valuable resource for those anticipating or going through open heart surgery as well as their support network of family and friends.
Photo credit: Azrul Aziz