Running with a New Heart

Story by Andrew Jason

MSUM Journalism and Spanish

Me surrounded by some of my amazing friends. Photograph by Rachel Lense

As I finished the seven-mile run my scar glistened with sweat. This isn’t one of those cool lightning shaped, be the chosen one, save the world, Harry Potter scars; but rather, a life changing surgery, laid up in bed for several weeks, painfully close to death kind of scar.

On Sept. 18, 2010, I was diagnosed with Endocarditis, an infection of my aortic heart valve. The condensed story is that four months earlier I had ran the full Fargo Marathon, three months before that I was training for a triathlon and two months before that dreadful day I was hiking up mountains in Montana. After returning from Montana I slowly became weaker and weaker and by the time school started I was barely able to run a mile or stay awake for several hours at a time.

Because of the infection my muscles weren’t getting the appropriate amount of blood and thereby not working.  When school started professors asked why I was walking on crutches but even I had no idea why I was on them, so I  made up lame excuses about twisting my ankle. However, the worst of the inquisitive looks and probing questions came from my mom and dad. Every time they asked me why I was so tired and sick I shook them off by telling them I was fine and I just had a stubborn flu and would be better soon.

As all good parents do though they kept nagging me. This annoying persistence eventually led me to the ER where I found myself in a hospital bed, diagnosed with endocarditis and scheduled for surgery in December. Although, as all people in Fargo know, when it starts to flood all hell can break loose. A near miss with a stroke caused my surgery to be bumped to Oct. first.

“Risks include skin numbness, minor infections, nausea…death.”

So the surgery  I wasn’t ready to face three months away was now occurring in two days. The day before the surgery  many friends, family, cards, and prayers surrounded me as several doctors related  the risks of the surgery. As my surgeon, Dr. Newman, reminded me, risks included nausea, minor infections, skin numbness… death. They hurried over the last one rather quickly.

On the day of the surgery I was waken at 5 a.m. to get “prepped,” which basically means they came to shave all of my chest hair, shove needles into me like a voodoo doll and do all sorts of unpleasant things that I’m not very fond of looking back on. I was very happy when the anesthesiologist put me to sleep on the operating table.

I was told afterwards how Dr. Newman began the operation by hooking me up to a respirator to do all my breathing. Then another tube was inserted down my nose and throat to prevent liquid and air from collecting in the stomach. Then my heart was stopped and cooled. Without going into graphic detail my aortic valve was  cut off and my new mechanical valve, consisting of two carbon leaflets in a ring covered with polyester knit fabric, was attached. I woke feeling amazingly well and surrounded by my family. Alas as the day wore on the painkillers wore off. The day was then replaced by night.

Photo of a mechanical aortic valve. From St Jude’s Web site

The aftereffects

The night after the surgery was the worst night of my life up to that moment.  The pain medicines made me nauseous and I vomited every couple of hours so I could not take any  painkillers. Every move ached my body. I couldn’t even enjoy the sponge bath by the cute nurse. Nothing seemed right in the world.

After a painful week in the hospital I went home to recuperate at my parents house, three hours away from my friends and school. After a brief period of feeling better, I slowly began to feel worse  until I found myself vomiting over a toilet. I thought it wasn’t possible, but the night of Oct. 11, proved even more painful than the night of my surgery. I couldn’t lie down or find any comfortable position because of fluid that had built up in my chest. I returned back to the hospital to get readmitted. There I saw all the faces of the nurses and doctors who I hoped never to see again.

At the hospital I found out my blood pressure had risen dangerously high into the 180s and my pulse was in the 160s. I found out I was going to be given a surgery and 20 minutes later I was in the operating room. After a quick surgery of fear, during which I was conscious and aware of everything happening to me, I was sent back to my room and eventually sent home a couple of days later. After 23 days in the hospital the surgeries and hospitalizations were finally over.

The hard part begins

My recovery is what I want people to take out of this story. Getting out of the hospital I could barely climb the stairs to my room. I would stop halfway to catch my breath. Every day  passed slowly and painfully. Soon I began to show improvement. Soon, slow walking led to a little bit faster pace, eventually slow jogging, finally ventured to fast running.

Looking back I try to find plus sides of having open-heart surgery but they’re hard to find. Some highlights I have been able to find though are:

  • Having surgery and a huge scar is a great conversation piece with new people. I get many weird looks in the locker room or at the pool.  One of my new favorite lines with the ladies is, “My heart is broken for you.”
  • I found out how much I’m worth. After much adding I found out my surgery came to a total of $160,495.25.
  • Because of a tube that was inserted to help drain fluids I have a scar underneath my long scar, combining the two it looks like I have an exclamation point on my chest. I’m always excited.

A painful realization

After going through the most painful, emotionally challenging experience of my life, I found out a couple of things: Life is hard. Pain is all around you but when the love of others and the love for yourself are stronger than that pain, anything is possible.

After being operated on twice, being used as a case study patient in med classes, I’ll be running the half-marathon in downtown Fargo with a new heart.

After months of being laid up I finally can return to running. Photograph by Dave Diebel

6 thoughts on “Running with a New Heart

  1. Andrew,
    You have been one of my best friends since I entered Blackduck High School. There will really never be a friend like you. I am so thankful that you made it through the operation, because the world truly wouldn’t be the same. I didn’t realize that you have been through so much and it brings me back to the month I was in the hospital. I really look forward to the next time we hang out. Stay safe till then. Take care.

  2. I will be running the Fargo half marathon for the charity, Hope Inc. Hope is run by the Grommesh family and are best known for their extreme makeover home last fall. Hope works with children who are bound to wheelchairs, giving them the opportunity to participate in activities enjoyed by all children. Donations can be made at http://www.active.com/donate/HOPEInc/SoleBrothers
    Thank you very much for your support.

    • Andrew
      You are an inspiration to many. A person does need a positive attitude and faith. I hope this gets to many people.

  3. Andrew,
    You are all of those things that Mom, Jan believes, and more. You are a strong, capable, and fearless young man, and I look so forward to seeing your career and your running unfold. Keep on rockin’!! You inspire me.
    -Linda B-F (your Aunt-in-Law, I think)

  4. You’re a great writer, Andrew and I especially enjoyed the opening Harry Potter reference. I had no idea that you went through such an ordeal, I got very few details from you and your parents, but I’m so thankful that you made it through the surgery and recovered so quickly and fully. You’ve always been like a brother to me and I’m not sure what I would’ve done if you were no longer in my life. Good luck and keep running, I’ll be seeing you soon I hope!
    Love,
    your favorite female second cousin-in-law

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