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A Cyclist’s Journey

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

By Ken Woodhouse

This Thursday marks the 30th anniversary of my first (and, so far, only) open heart surgery. Although I had annual checkups with my pediatric cardiologist as a child, I never really thought of myself as a heart patient. Since I had my surgery when I was only eight months old, the scar on my chest feels more like a birthmark than a reminder of a major life event. My annual visits to the doctor always resulted in a clean bill of health. With the exception of football, I had no physical restrictions growing up.

I have always loved the outdoors, especially bicycling. Over the last few years, I’ve become more of an avid cyclist, having completed multiple distance rides, including centuries and multi-day rides. For me, cycling is the perfect mix of physical endurance and relaxation. While that may sound a bit contradictory, I would bet that most people who ride regularly would agree. It’s hard to describe, but the rush and excitement associated with a distance ride is both physically invigorating and emotionally meditative. For me, the benefits of cycling cannot be replicated elsewhere.

Back in early August, I went for a bike ride after work along Chicago’s lakefront path (a common thing for me to do in the summer), and I later woke up in the ER after falling and having a concussion. Fortunately I was wearing a helmet, and the brain CT scan came back normal. Because the doctors were made aware of my CHD, I was put on a heart monitor while in the hospital and run through the battery of cardiac tests, including an outpatient MRI the following week.

The next month, I had an appointment with the ACHD cardiologist, who reviewed my records and informed me that the MRI found an aneurysm in my main pulmonary artery. During that conversation, he also gave me his preliminary recommendation for open heart surgery.

I, like many adults with a CHD, stopped going for regular checkups when I was in high school. Now it’s hard to know whether or not this aneurysm would have been caught earlier had I been maintaining regular checkups, but that’s a moot point. The last two and a half months have been spent going for a variety of pre-op appointments, seeking multiple opinions and riding an emotional roller coaster.

The second and third opinions I received actually recommended against the open heart surgery. The doctors told me the likelihood of the aneurysm rupturing is incredibly low. Instead, they recommended a much less invasive procedure to put a stent in the left branch of my pulmonary artery, which has been narrowed as a result of the aneurysm pushing up against it. For many reasons—including my paranoia about the unknown and my desire to not be that first documented case of such a rupture—I anticipate that I will actually be having the open heart surgery, rather than the stent procedure, in the coming weeks.

Truthfully, I’m terrified; but I also know I’m in good hands. The surgeon I met with specializes in adults with CHD, and he has a 0% mortality rate. During our consultation, he even said that he fully expects I will be back on the bike within just a few months after surgery. Hearing that gave me a lot of confidence, and I know that cycling will be a big part of my recovery.

I recently read Back to Life After a Heart Crisis by Dr. Marc Wallack and Jamie Colby. In the book, Dr. Wallack talks about his journey to regain his life after having emergency quadruple bypass surgery, and the final step in his 8-step plan is “Train for a Huge Physical Challenge.” He writes, “To fully recover mentally and physically from heart disease, you need to take on that one thing you fear most. Only then will you prove to yourself and others that you are back and better than ever.” I know that I will be back on the bike by spring, and I am already looking for distance rides taking place next summer that I can register for now to keep myself motivated and my recovery on track.


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The contents of this blog are presented for informational purposes only, and should not be substituted for professional advice. Always consult your physicians with your questions and concerns.

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