Patient Stories

Mark's Open-Heart Surgery

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The only thing more impressive than his mile time is the fact he can run at all.

Every year, when Mark goes for his routine physical, he schedules the appointment for the morning, plans a lunch downtown with friends and finishes the day by donating blood. Every year, Mark also runs the Boston Marathon. In 2006, the two were more closely tied than anyone could have predicted.

When Mark went to see Nadim Khoury, MD, for his annual check-up, Dr. Khoury, who retired in the fall of 2015 after 43 years at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and 32 as Mark’s doctor, ordered an electrocardiogram. This itself wasn’t out of the ordinary – Mark has a family history of heart disease and, a few years before, the test had revealed atrial fibrillation. This year, however, an additional echocardiogram showed a more serious problem: a leaky heart valve.

The leak was above average but it was not until a follow-up appointment that November revealed it had worsened that Mark learned he would need heart valve replacement surgery within the next few months.

Choosing Northwestern Medicine was a given for Mark. “This was uncharted territory for me – I never had heart surgery before – and knowing the reputation gave me confidence and helped reduce the stress,” Mark said. “To know I was going to one of the best possible places and having one of the best heart surgeons in the country certainly calmed my nerves a great deal.”

The Program for Atrial Fibrillation at Northwestern Medicine offers the most advanced medical and surgical techniques for treating irregular heartbeat. This includes, but is not limited to, a miniature remote cardiac monitor – 87 percent smaller than previous monitors – that is easily injected under the skin, transmitting data back to the care team at night. More recently, the team performed the first successful placement in Illinois of the WATCHMAN Left Atrial Appendage Closure (LAAC) device, a minimally invasive and potentially life saving procedure that reduces the risk of stroke.

Mark met with Patrick M. McCarthy, MD, the heart surgeon that first drew him to Northwestern Medicine, and Pablo Denes, MD, who would become his cardiologist. The first date he requested for his procedure was April 21 – two days after the Boston Marathon. When Dr. McCarthy found out Mark planned to spend the intervening months training and running, he ruled that out. Mark’s second suggestion was that very day – to allow the most possible time to recover for the race. They settled on February 1, two weeks later.

The day before his open-heart surgery, Mark ran 10 miles. As during the preceding weeks and months, he was in no pain, he felt nothing wrong. His procedure lasted six hours. A test the following day confirmed that the leak was fixed, but Mark still faced an uphill journey.

On April 21, 2006, Mark started his 27th Boston Marathon. He had set rules for himself: If his heart rate reached 130 beats per minute he would stop immediately, seek help from the medical personnel on the route. But he never needed to: He crossed the finish line – an official finisher with a time of 5:42:31.

“To this day, I still consider that my most treasured and hardest athletic accomplishment,” Mark said. It was, as he likes to say, a Personal Slowest, but not Personal Worst, not a Personal Fastest, but a Personal Best.

Mark ran his first Boston Marathon at the age of 19. Thirty-six – and counting – races later, Boston has opened Mark’s world up and shaped the course it has taken for the last thirty years. He continues to race and runs a training program and running camp, he writes for running magazines, coaches and gives educational seminars on training and running. In fact, it was at one such seminar that he met his wife, with whom he celebrated his twelfth wedding anniversary in August.

In February 2016, he celebrated another anniversary: 10 years since his open-heart surgery. The cow heart valve that saved his life is commemorated with a cow ornament on his Christmas tree every year. He volunteers as a member of Mended Hearts, giving encouragement and answering the non-medical questions of patients going through heart surgery.

Of even greater impact is the number of runners who have approached Mark to share how his story saved their lives. From before Mark was diagnosed until the day of his procedure, he felt fine. It was only his annual physical, a tradition he is as committed to as Boston, that revealed his heart condition and led to his life-saving valve replacement.

“My biggest satisfaction is that I’ve been very public with what I went through and I’ve helped save other people’s lives,” Mark said. “When someone comes up to me and says, Mark, I had the same experience, I would have never known if not for your article, that’s priceless.”

“My father would tell me, if you’ve got something, if you’ve got a gift, that’s wonderful,” Mark continued. “Now make it really special and share it with others.”

With his annual physical on the calendar, Mark is preparing as usual for the Boston Marathon in April. 2016 will mark his tenth with the cow heart valve and 37th overall.

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