My Story: Coast Guard Officer Offers Hope To Heart Valve Patients
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As a retired U.S. Coast Guard Senior Chief Petty Officer, I have long been passionate about the military. Now in retirement, I’m using that passion to help raise awareness about a life-threatening heart condition I had for years without realizing it.
I joined the Coast Guard in 1979 when I was 18, and I learned that I had a benign heart murmur during a boot camp physical. I had no idea what they were talking about, and I didn’t think much of it.
Symptoms first started to appear in 1992. Vigorous exercise was part of my job, and in 1996 I started feeling fatigued and out of breath. I was experiencing pains in my chest. Sometimes I could feel my heart pounding when I laid down to rest. I was in denial that anything was wrong and continued to push myself harder, thinking I was just out of shape.
During a regular check-up, my doctor detected a severe regurgitation coming from the artery in my neck. She told me my heart murmur was no longer benign, and she referred me to a cardiologist. Further tests showed I had an aortic aneurysm, aortic dissection, a leaky aortic valve (called aortic regurgitation) and a dilated left ventricle. As a result, my heart had become enlarged.
I was terrified and angry, and I couldn’t help but wonder “why me?” With only a few days to prepare, I underwent open-heart surgery at the age of 35 to replace my aortic valve with a mechanical heart valve.
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My recovery included cardiac rehabilitation, medication and lifestyle modifications, many of which were tough for me to come to terms with. I went from running three miles a day at the Coast Guard Chief’s Academy to having to slow down and be careful about everything. I had to avoid contact sports, giving up basketball and football in favor of less physical sports. I adjusted my diet to make sure certain foods didn’t interfere with my medications.
Things also changed at work. My job included extensive travel, training Coast Guard personnel and meeting with senior Coast Guard officials, but following surgery I wasn’t able to perform sea duty anymore, and I remained in that position until I retired.
While these changes were challenging to overcome, they taught me the importance of giving and receiving help from family, friends and other caregivers. My recovery would not have been possible without the strong support of my wife and baby sister, and the hours of caregiving they generously provided.
After my first surgery, I later learned I would need surgery for a descending thoracic aneurysm and aortic dissection, and I’ve since had two more major surgeries. Following my third surgery in 2004, I resolved to educate people about heart disease.
I became a patient advocate for aortic health, conducting seminars to teach people about heart health and visiting patients facing open heart surgery to share my story with them. I founded the National Organization for Aortic Awareness, and I recently joined the American Heart Association Heart Valve Patient Ambassadors to offer hope and encouragement to other heart disease patients and caregivers. As an ambassador for the American Heart Association, I have the opportunity to help others struggling with heart disease on the Support Network and share available resources with patients and caregivers, many of which are available on the American Heart Association website at http://www.heart.org/heartvalves.
I tell people with heart conditions like mine to focus on being there for their loved ones in the future. Providing support for others is motivating, and my wife and son have given me strength throughout my journey. I also encourage men in particular to pay attention to their heart health. Men can be stubborn when it comes to their health, but when I do seminars entitled “If it’s good for your heart, it’s good for your love life” they come. It’s so important to be proactive about your health, do your research and maintain a dialogue with your doctor. Be your own investigator!
Looking back on my first surgery, I wish I could have found a support group for heart disease and talked to someone who had been in my shoes about what to expect. Now, I’m happy to be able to do that for others. It feels good to be able to show people how well I’m doing, and have them see me and say “you don’t look like you’ve been though all that you have…I feel like I can make it now.”