Sunday, December 29, 2013

Staying Alive (Healthy vs. Fit)

By Dave McGillivray

First, this is a “good story” with a happy ending…so far.

For the better part of my entire life, I thought I was as close to invincible as was humanly possible.   With all the running I have done, I thought no physical challenge was insurmountable.  It took 59 years, but, recently that all changed in a “heartbeat.”

Dave McGillivray in 1978
running over the Rocky
Mountains during the Run
Across America
For over a year now, I’ve been experiencing difficulty breathing as soon as I start my run workout.  For the first 10-15 minutes, I’ve had to run and then walk just to be able to catch my breath.  This has been embarrassing to say the least.  It felt like I was running at altitude.  It seemed like angina-type symptoms.  After about one to two miles, the discomfort seemed to either go away or at least became less painful.  I seldom ran with others choosing rather to run alone because I didn’t want anyone else to know “my little secret”.

Like most people, I know my own body very well and knew something wasn’t right, that something was very wrong.  I proceeded to have all the normal tests done – pulmonary, heart, EKG, inhalers, echo tests, stress tests and on and on.  The good news, nothing was detected.  The bad news, nothing was detected.  In fact, although my fitness level isn’t close to what it used to be when I was in my 20’s and 30’s, I am much fitter now than most folks my age walking the planet or any age for that matter and as such the stress test showed nothing out of the ordinary.  Then, what the heck was causing this nagging, non-stop breathing issue?

Unfortunately, I do come from a family that has a history of heart disease, in particular, a higher than normal cholesterol level.  It is simply in the gene pool. I only realized this about ten years ago and started taking a cholesterol lowering statin for it.  However, I had a bad reaction to the statin (mainly muscle cramping) and as such got frustrated and  stopped taking it for quite some time.  I eventually experimented with different ones until I came up with the one that worked best.

Through a methodical process of elimination, I tried valiantly to determine what the cause of my condition was but I kept coming up with no answers.  Was it hot weather or cold weather, running up hills, running after eating or drinking something?  What is causing this?   I even went on a run with my cardiologist, Dr. Aaron Baggish, but, of course, I could not replicate the problem right then and there for him to diagnose first hand.

After a year and a half of this, I had had enough and Dr. Baggish ordered a CAT scan.  The result, in his words, “severe blockage and chronic ischemic heart disease.”  The word that jumped out at me more than any other one was “severe”.  Really?  Severe?  I was devastated and really scared.  How can this be me?  I’ve run across the darn country averaging 45-miles a day, run hundreds of marathons, run over 140,000 miles, done the Ironman in Hawaii numerous times and just ran 59 miles on my 59th birthday.  Really, severe?

Dr. Baggish immediately scheduled me for an angiogram at Mass General Hospital on October 9th.  I thought, okay, go in, maybe get one stent, leave and start running again the next day…all fixed up.  Problem solved.  Not so fast.   As I lay on the operating table, I nervously looked up at the monitor and saw the image of my arteries looking like the twisted branches of an oak tree.  My jaw dropped as the doctor pointed out “all” the blockages and narrowing in many of the arteries…no, not just one.  I started counting them on one hand and then stopped when I ran out of fingers.  The doctors determined it would be more risky to operate than not to and wheeled me out of the operating room.  As I was leaving, I was thinking to myself, how much more time do I have?  Is this possibly…terminal?  I usually don’t get emotional but I broke down uncontrollably.  So much for being Superman anymore.

After some “heart-to-heart” discussions with my doctors, it was decided that since I probably put myself in this position, it would be up to me to get myself out of it.   Have I followed the best nutrition plan all my life?  Hardly.  A few of my mottos have been, “anything and everything but in moderation” and “sleep is over rated.”   

I realized for the first time in my life that these just might be flawed statements.  I always rationalized that whatever I ate, I burnt off.  However, it’s like putting a bad grade of gas in your car.  The car will still run, but your engine will “gunk up” in no time.  And, I always thought I’d sleep enough when I’m dead.  There is even a song that says so.   And, I’ve been told that stress can be a factor, too.  I guess you could say this past year in Boston has been a little stressful for many of us.  There seemed to be a confluence of factors coming into play here.

I can personally name a half dozen friends who were really good athletes who in the past 10-15 years went for out for a run from their home and never came back.  I thought that could have happened to me but how lucky am I that I am now getting a second chance.  I never believed that I would “drop, you know what” on a run, but now I wonder if I actually could have.   People often use the expression, “at least he died doing what he loved to do.”  Well, I’m sorry, but I do not want to die doing what I love to do and that is while out for a run.  Dying in my sleep when I am 110 seems like a better option to me. 

Only a few weeks ago a 52-year-old man dropped to the ground in my Thanksgiving Day race and lucky for him our medical people saved his life.  He later found out he had 100% blockage in a major artery and he didn’t even know it.  If he went down in his back yard shoveling snow, he probably wouldn’t be with us today.

The biggest lesson I have learned from all of this is that being fit does not necessarily mean being healthy.  Seems like a simple statement -- because it is.  I’ve spent my entire life focused on being fit but not really focused on being healthy because I thought one meant the other.  Well, that’s all changed now.  I only need one warning.   Interestingly, being fit saved my life as my other arteries were healthy and developed enough to overcompensate for the blocked arteries but my fitness also seemed to “mask” my underlying problem, something all “fit” people should take notice of.

It’s been two months since my “rude awakening”.  I’ve done a complete 180 degrees in my lifestyle.   I totally changed my diet (no meat, no fat, no soda, no beer, no anything that is bad for you) and have lost 21 lbs in these short two months.  I’ve started swimming again and lifting weights and hooked up with a personal trainer and a nutritionist and have been taking dietary supplements.  My cholesterol level has dropped 65 points from 212 to 147.  When my doctor gave me these results all he said to me was “you over achiever.”  Hey, this has nothing to do with over achieving, I just want to stay alive a little longer – I got the message loud and clear! 

And, guess what?  I now no longer have the breathing issue! Yahoo! My running has felt the best it has felt in the past 15 years!  However, I do take my cell phone with me every time I go for a run now.  And, I am thinking of doing another Ironman triathlon which I haven’t done in 25 years and something which has been the furthest thing from my mind…until now.  And, today I actually passed someone out jogging while I was out running myself, first time in a long time.  He was probably 90 years old but you got to take what you can get.

At first, I didn’t want to tell anyone this story…no one.   Why?  Because I was embarrassed about it and I also didn’t want to burden anyone with it.  And I’m not good with sympathy and all that stuff.  However, after now processing it all and after talking to some close friends about it, I’ve realized a few things.  First, I needed a support group myself…of family and friends who care.  They actually “rescued” me.   My wife, Katie, has been my biggest supporter…what would I do without her?  A number of others have helped “educate” me on all of this…that has made a huge difference.

I’ve also realized that there are many people out there just like me who are in the same boat as me, some who have caught this just in time and others who don’t even have a clue that they are currently in big trouble.  They deserve a second chance, too, but they need to take action right away.  Maybe my story can help bring some awareness to this.  Could this be you? 

That is the second lesson here, that is, for everyone to get checked, now, no matter how fit you think you are, before it is too late.   Truth be told, we are not invincible.  Even though I am no Superman, even Superman went down when he came up against his weakness -- kryptonite.  

I have a beautiful wife and five children with the youngest being 4-years-old.  I want to be around when she graduates from college and has her own family (although, I may be so old by then that I will be in an assistant living facility by then but we’ll leave that for another day).  Frankly, I’m still praying that I haven’t missed the “health bus” myself, but I am grateful that my destiny is now in my own hands not in anyone else’s…right where it should be.

After I finished my cross country run in 1978, my brother put a slide show together which included the Bee Gees hit, “Staying Alive”.  I loved that song.   I love it even more now.


Adrienne said...

Thanks for sharing your story, Dave!

John Fixx said...

This is a strong account from you, Dave, a brave runner. Simply by writing this and sharing your story, you might be helping more runners than you have throughout your life of organizing road races, coaching, giving tips to runners and such.

Others will react by seeing their doctors for full work-ups. Thank you for caring.

John Fixx

LeChat98 said...

Dave, you mentioned wanting to do an Ironman in Hawaii. You should check out Dr. Ruth Heidrich. She has been doing the ironman since she was in her thirties. She is now in her late 70's! She is featured in the Forks over Knives movie.

Anyway, thanks for telling your story. I hope it stirs someone into action.

Long live plants!

John Lyle said...

Thanks David for your powerful illustration of that classic expression, "what you see isn't always what you get". Like you I was a life-long hard core runner. Like you I ate anything and everything I wanted, anytime I wanted and as much as I wanted. Like you I rationalized it by thinking/believing that all this junk and gunk was burned off by my high energy activity level. Like you I started having some very frightening symptoms which prompted me to see a doctor, Tests showed my cholesterol at 297, my homocysteine level at over 17 and an ultrasound showing my aorta dangerously blocked. Fortunately, like you, I changed my diet and lifestyle and have seen "heartening" results. Though my knees no longer allow me to run, I can walk and farm tea and play with my little son and am feeling very blessed. Thank you for bringing this situation to light. Like you said, so many people think that fitness and good health are the same thing; that if someone looks strong and can run ultra marathons they must be in awesome condition. What you see isn't always what you get! Be well and thanks again! John Lyle in Volcano, Hawai'i.

Tom Mac said...

Dave good luck! You are a hero here in Maine where you helped Joan Benoit Samuelson start a works class 10k . Of course you are a legend in Boston for being in charge of the Boston Marathon for decades . Glad you are so much healthier.

Tom Mac said...

World class!

CGorky said...

Great story and very similar to mine. I was "fit," hiking at high altitude, cross country skiing, doing a 5K at the drop of a hat with little pre-run practice because, well, I didn't have to.
Then, undoubtedly with genetics similar to yours, I had a stroke at age 39 and a heart attack at 40. Changing my diet somewhat after the stroke (almost completely vegan) saved my life at 40, according to the doctors, since I had a complete blockage in my right arterial artery. Fortunately, being "fit" had encouraged the left side of my heart to create it's own bypass to the right side and I got away with three stents on the left side. Now completely vegan for six years, I have avoided any signs of another attack, but I have learned the lesson that "fit" and "healthy" are not always the same term.