You Gotta Believe
(but you’ve gotta work hard, too!)
Elizabeth Robertson, Philadelphia Inquirer
On a frigid morning in April 2016, I stood in the parking lot of the Virtua Cardiac Rehab Center, looking at the front entrance about 100 feet away. It looked like an impossible distance.
The previous Christmas, I had collapsed at my doctor’s office and had two heart attacks in the ambulance followed by two defibrillator shocks. I had a blocked coronary artery. At the hospital, they put in a stent and a pump in my aorta. I was 61 years old.
Things looked good, but the next morning I went into cardiac distress and my lungs filled with fluid. That’s when they discovered that the wall between the ventricles had ruptured, and I was transferred to Penn Presbyterian Medical Center. They put me on ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, a kind of heart-lung machine) for seven days. Then came the open-heart surgery, repairing the septal wall without use of the underlying heart muscle. I was in the hospital for 53 days.
My doctors at Penn Presbyterian performed magic and kept me alive. The operative word was miracle. One physician friend commented that he previously had only read my symptoms on a death certificate. My primary doctor said I was at the gates of hell.
But on that freezing April morning, that narrative was in my past. Unfortunately, despite everybody’s best efforts, I was getting worse.
From the parking lot to the front door of the cardiac rehab center, I had to stop five times, huffing and puffing, almost hyperventilating. This was not too surprising as the cardiologists who treated me in the hospital had said that I would eventually need to have a pacemaker/defibrillator implanted.
I went home and called the cardiologists for an appointment, and they set surgery for Monday. When I got there, laying on that cold metal table, they had all the machines and screens ready to go. Then came my lab report: Get him upstairs NOW!
It was decided I needed surgery ASAP, but when I got back on the same table in the cath lab, only local anesthesia was used. So, I stared into space, took the hit like it was a root canal, and four hours later I had a Cadillac purring in my chest.
I could now rejoin the living.
After completing cardiac rehab, I went back to my gym, the Rowan Rec Center, where they generously extended my membership. I took to the overhead track above the gym, walking 30 minutes a day. Gradually I added five then 10 and eventually 30 minutes on the treadmill, checking my pulse every two minutes.
I then added very light weight lifting to strengthen my atrophied muscles. I got back in the water, whether down at the Jersey Shore, or at our local pool. That became another hour a day, sometimes more.
I participated in the American Heart Association’s Home Runs for Heart at Citizens Bank Park in 2017. I played a lot of baseball in my youth, and I wasn’t going to be some scrub. But it was really hard, getting the timing down and not getting winded. I was able to hit a few line drives, and host Richie Ashburn Jr. — son of the National Baseball Hall of Famer — actually said I had a nice swing.
That gave me confidence.
I made goals: Run the Phillies 5k. Get some strength back in my arms, shoulders and core. Neuropathy had stolen my balance, and I had fallen a few times the previous year, so I decided to take exercise classes at Rowan.
First came Vinyasa yoga. I think Vinyasa means “harder than you think.” I stumbled and struggled, but the generous instructor knew my situation and kept a close eye on me as I lagged behind the class. She gave me alternative moves and stressed taking breaks and hydrating.
Being competitive — I was a four-sport athlete in college — made me strive to get better (translation: “Don’t embarrass yourself”). The others in the class were supportive and I continued to get better.
I added Body Pump™ class, which uses a barbell in the workout, on Monday, then again on Sunday. But the mountaintop both physically and mentally was Pilates because it is extremely strenuous. It was hard, but you can modify every move and take breaks.
Now I take classes five days a week, plus doing an hour of cardio (treadmill, track and stationary bike) five or six days a week. Add 20 minutes of light lifting and 10 minutes of meditation, and I have a solid routine with a cast of friends and instructors giving me positive feedback at every turn.
I am well aware that my ejection fraction is only 25, but I got an A+ in my stress test. My cardiologist said, “Whatever you are doing, keep doing it.”
Then at the beginning of 2018 I upped the ante on recovery and went to a dietitian at Shop Rite every other week. I use the Higi® station there to monitor my blood pressure and weight at least three times a week. I use the MyFitnessPal® app to chronicle everything I eat and drink. The enemy is sodium, and MyFitnessPal® keeps me in check. I find the secret is to enter the food in the app before you eat it. So, yes, one hoagie roll can blow the whole day. I have gone meatless since New Year’s, meaning no prime rib on Super Bowl Sunday. That’s hard for a sports editor like me.
I have lost almost 10 pounds and am running again. I finished the Phillies 5k in 47 minutes — about one third running, two thirds walking — and I was nowhere near last! I did the Philadelphia Heart Walk®, too.
I have also changed my attitude toward everything. This multitasking, born in Brooklyn, Type A personality now lets people merge at tough intersections, cleans the snow off strangers’ cars in parking lots and smiles at every baby in a shopping cart.
Perhaps my biggest physical enlightenment is learning to breathe: big inhale through the nose, big exhale through the mouth.
At Christmas 2015, my life expectancy looked grim, but it’s been almost three years, and life is good. I believe that for every day I work out, I buy two more down the road. In the bank — like a 401k.
I look forward to my son Jack, who was 14 when all this started, graduating high school in 2019, then college and eventually making me Grandpa Quinn.
You gotta believe, but you gotta work hard, too — every day, every blessed day. My friends call me an inspiration. I tell them that’s just compound interest from all their prayers, especially the day there were so many tweets about me that I actually trended on Twitter.
I have visited my nurses from the ICU on the past two Valentine’s Days, passing out chocolate-covered strawberries and red roses. Last year I got a big hug from my surgeon who is a former Duke football player and diehard Alabama fan. We’re making plans to go to the Notre ‘Dame-‘Bama game in South Bend when I am 75! The year after that, my college roommate and I are going to Amsterdam. We visited the Grand Canyon two years ago. Why stop now?
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