If you’re seeing this page, I’ve either shared this link with you or you’ve searched the internet for information on running after having open heart surgery. If the latter, I hope you find this helpful, informative and that you’ll reach out to me.
On January 3, 2014, I underwent Cardiac Artery Bypass and Graft (CABG) surgery to unblock two arteries. What follows is a timeline of the period leading into, directly surrounding, and shortly after my surgery.
In 2012, I was in the best shape of my adult life. I was running the fastest I’d done since high school: in January I ran my fastest 10k ever, in February I ran my fastest Half Marathon by 7 minutes and in March I ran my fastest 5k since I was a senior in high school. At this point, I decided to hire a coach to help me progress even further.
I did some research and I found a coach whose philosophy seemed to match my own. He taught me a few things that I still value- a great overall training philosophy and also some great individual workouts. However, neither of us were prepared for my overall running performance to decrease because of heart related issues. While neither of us were aware of my cardiac issues, my health and performance were both decreasing and I let this relationship slide.
In late November, I became ill with respiratory issues which side lined me for the rest of the year. In 2013, I had some difficulties starting back up, which I put off to remaining respiratory issues. Inertia and work travel, in which I spent 8 months in Europe, continued my absence from exercise. By late 2013, I was really not feeling well, I was having a hard time breathing while doing longer walks-it really felt like intense heart burn. I put off seeing a doctor while abroad, but when I eventually did, he agreed it was likely heartburn and I decided to deal with it when I arrived back home in California.
On December 13, 2013, I was out for drinks with a friend. On my way home, I did not feel well at all, and this was the moment when I knew I desperately needed to get back into a doctor. I never had a “Hollywood Heart Attack” moment, so to learn later that I’d suffered one was a mystery. In retrospect, I believe this was probably the time I had it.
I was able to get into a new doctor on December 17th. She agreed with previous assessment that it was likely heart burn. She put me on a prescription drug, had me alter my diet for a week, and also asked me to have a blood test and then come back in a week.
After a week of no improvement in symptoms, I went back to the doctor, who, by then, also had my blood work. My lack of improvement combined with alarmingly high cholesterol had her refer me to a cardiologist who I could see immediately to rule out any heart issues, after which I’d see a gastroenterologist about my still presumed digestive issues.
On the morning of December 27th, I was into the cardiologist. I was expecting he would quickly rule out any issues and I’d be onto a gastroenterologist. The first thing they did was an in office EKG, which immediately raised alarms. At first, he wanted to schedule me for a cardiac stress test for the following Monday. On further reflection, he told me to come back later that day.
I came back ready to do my stress test on the treadmill. The first thing that happens during a stress test is an echocardiogram to get a baseline, which they would again do after the exercise portion and compare results. After this initial echocardiogram, the doctor had seen enough and determined I might not survive the exercise portion. I was immediately scheduled for an angiogram/angioplasty on the morning of Monday, December 30th.
The goal of this was to determine if my specific issues were a candidate for stents, and, if so, to do that on the spot. If not, a reevaluation would be done after results of the angiogram.
In the time before the procedure, at the hospital, I learned that there is a time and a place for hearing “you look so young”. I really grew quite tired of that and “what the hell are you doing here?”, though I know both were meant well.
Having an angiogram is a bizarre feeling. I was very heavily drugged, but not out of it. I was able to feel a bit, I was able to interact, and I sort of remembered things that were said. The only real thing I remember was knowing that it wasn’t going to be the solution to my problems, I’d likely need surgery and that we’d be wrapping up early. However, learning this while so heavily drugged was surreal.
Afterwards, I learned that my diagnosis was “two spectacular blockages” including a completely blocked LADA, aka widow maker, and LCA. Trying to address my specific blockages with stents was too risky. I was scheduled for surgery at the earliest available date (due to holidays) of Friday, January 3, 2014. There was a debate about whether I should be allowed to go home, but in the end I did.
The next several days were a bit of a blur, but there were a lot of meetings with doctors. I met the surgeon, who seemed great and, under different circumstances, probably very funny. She refused to believe I was “Mr. CABGRUNR”, and kept addressing my father.
I’m no stranger to stress and anxiety, but the morning of January 3rd was certainly the worst I’ve ever been. I had surgery when I was 5, and I vividly remember the fear I felt being rolled into the OR, but the understanding that comes with age made this much worse. Fortunately, the hyperventilating and freaking out did not last long as I was not long in the OR before they put me under.
My surgery went as planned. Mammary arteries were used rather than those from my legs, which, I’m told, is a good thing. During CABG, patients have a several tubes and wires inserted. The breathing tube is usually removed after a few hours. In my case, it was in for a full day. Having this removed was one of the least pleasant memory of my stay in the hospital, along with having the various tubes and wires removed directly from my chest. This delay also had me in the cardiac ICU for a few days longer than normal. After several days, I was transferred to a step down unit, which is much more of a familiar environment to those who have been in a hospital with a higher patient to nurse ratio than that of the cardiac ICU.
A few “fun” memories of my stay:
- Waking up with a tube in my mouth/throat. I was obviously quite out of it, but I do remember this.
- Shortly after this, trying to ask “what time is it?” without being able to talk, or, apparently, draw a clock on a white board. I’m still convinced me pointing at my wrist should have been enough for this. I wish I could see that drawing today.
- Annoying the shit out of the night time cardiac ICU nurse with questions. Anyone who knows me will believe this.
- As I mentioned, having the breathing tube removed. This was awful.
- My first steps, with all the attending devices attached to me. This actually happened a lot later than is normal due to aforementioned issues.
- Being yelled at by the surgeon for my lack of enthusiasm for the spirometer, a tool to help rebuild lung capacity, which suffers after hours of being on a heart lung machine during surgery.
- Being visited by a priest.
- Being shown how to crap by the occupational therapist.
- Having tubes, whose function(s) now escapes me, removed. This was not as bad as the breathing tube being removed, but I was on a lot fewer drugs.
- Having wires removed. These are wires that are attached to one’s heart for the duration of the stay, and are therefore one of the last things removed before discharge. They’re there in the event of an issue so one can be jump started. This was the least painful of all the removals, but was a very weird feeling.
Unfortunately, I do not have a good memory of the first time loved ones came into the cardiac ICU. Or, maybe this is fortunate, as it must have been difficult to see me. Seeing that in others would be hard.
On the evening of January 8th, I was discharged and allowed to go home.
On January 10th, I took my first shower since before my surgery. This is significant because I had previously been emotionally unable to look at my scar, but was now forced to do so. So, not only was it my first shower, but it was the first time I’d seen what my chest looked like. This was both upsetting and fascinating. It was upsetting to see what they’d had to do, and fascinating that it was so cleanly done.
The next few weeks went from barely being able to move to walking upwards of 10k. I knew I’d be starting cardiac rehab soon and I really wanted to be able to run. I also knew running before I started would be a mistake.
Three weeks after my surgery, I worked from home for a week. This may have been too early, but I was also extremely bored as I could not do much. After another week, I was in the office.
On February 24th, I attended my first cardiac rehab. The cardio work was very easy, but the exercises to build strength were less fun. Cardiac rehab is a must for anyone recovering from something like CABG, as one gets to exercise in a supervised environment, ask questions that come up in daily life but can’t really ask of a doctor and also be forced to adjust to exercise at a managed pace. I would have liked more interaction with other patients, but it’s possible the large age difference between me and other patients made this awkward.
On March 20th, I did my first run on the treadmill, at cardiac rehab, for 3 minutes, keeping my HR under 155.
On April 5th, I ran my first race, a 5k in Mountain View. I followed a 4/1 run/walk plan while keeping my HR under 155.
On April 17th, I finished cardiac rehab. Normal treatment is 3 months, but they were satisfied with what I was doing both in class and outside (running and swimming).
Over the next several months, I proceeded to increase my level of exercise and I competed in a few more 5k races and also a 10k.
Fast forward to January 3, 2015. I wanted to do something big to celebrate my one year anniversary, and I was lucky enough to have a half marathon in the city where I was residing at the time: Los Angeles. I ran the New Year’s Race (at night). It was cold, a very hilly course, but I finished. My goal was to survive and finish under a fairly conservative time, both of which I did.
Fast forward again, I’ve run many races, including my first marathon on December 4, 2016. I’ve been running more often, further, and more consistently than I ever did before surgery. It has not been without setbacks. I suffered through bursitis and frozen shoulder, which I’m convinced is related to surgery and was much more painful than my initial recovery; I’ve had varying degrees of incision pain daily since surgery, though this gets better over time; I’ve even shut down an ER. This latter event was a false alarm, but it is not a lot of fun to see an ER scramble like that. I’ve since learned to carry a copy of my EKG on my phone, so there will always be a comparison to my new normal.
I was once hit by a car while riding my bike. After that, I learned there are two ways to look at the situation. Am I unlucky to have been hit by a car, or lucky to have walked away? In that case, the choice has been easy. Now, the question I’m faced with daily is do I consider myself unlucky to be a fit, young person on a good diet who required heart surgery, or a do I consider myself lucky to have survived what is frequently fatal? I do not always see the glass as half full on this matter, but I am thankful every day that I’m able to continue running, even take on challenges that I’d previously considered impossible. To paraphrase Lauren Fleshman, I don’t have to run, I get to run.