HEALTH: Coronary Artery Disease: A Champion Swimmer’s Story

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HEALTH:

By Trip Hedrick, as told to Janie McQueen

One day in 2000, at age 46, I was in the pool doing a hard set when a jolt of chest pain and radiating arm pain stopped me cold. I’ve been swimming most of my life — I was a member of U.S. Masters Swimming for more than 40 years and have participated in national and world championships — so I’m no stranger to a twinge of pain. It felt different. I thought it was asthma, or that my triceps were straining.

The discomfort subsided and I was able to finish my workout. When the pain returned 2 days later, I called my doctor immediately and had a treadmill stress test. I’ve been periodically having stress tests since the mid-1980s; after witnessing the ultimately fatal cardiac events of very fit and active swimmers, I wanted to be vigilant.

I passed the test with flying colors, but was admitted to Mercy Hospital in Des Moines two weeks later. I had a heart attack.

The cardiologist told me I had coronary artery disease (CAD), and that the left anterior descending artery (LAD) in my heart was 99% blocked. I was taken to cardiac catheterization lab and then to critical care.

I had always boasted to my inactive friends that I would be the one who could avoid heart problems. I was wrong.

In 2008, I had another heart attack mid-swim. Another LAD blockage was discovered by doctors and required a second stent. Then, in 2015, an angiogram showed a major blockage in the first LAD diagonal branch, and I received my third stent.

From Rehab to New Records

I completed cardiac rehab after my first heart attack, and I returned after my third stent was put in. Both times, I knew that my physical rehab would be easy and not as difficult as my mental rehabilitation. So, I began seeing a mental health professional and also started an exercise program to help me regain strength and prevent my condition from getting worse.

My psychological needs and issues were piling up quickly. I was stressed, both from my own self-driven personality and my job as Head Men’s Swimming Coach at Iowa State University and later as head of my own swim school (cycloneswimschool.com). I was concerned about losing my competitive edge. I was also concerned about my heart problems and how they would affect my wife. Although she has been my constant source for reassurance, calm and support, I didn’t want her to feel burdened.

Counseling helped significantly, as did physical rehab. I had a great comeback in the pool in 2016, swimming at a highly competitive level for my age group. In 2017, I set another age group world record in the 50 meter butterfly.

Despite maintaining a high level of fitness, my struggle with CAD continued, and I needed double bypass surgery in 2018. Before I went to the hospital, I reached out and talked with four of my best friends who had undergone heart surgery. To be mentally prepared for the procedure was one of my best decisions.

Being in good health at the time of surgery was also a benefit. To prepare for the big Masters swimming competition, I had just begun to taper. My recovery was aided by my core strength and lung capacity. I achieved a post-surgery goal of setting another world record in the 50 meter butterfly for the 65-69 age group in August 2021.

A Full Life With CAD

If there is one thing I’ve learned through my bypass surgery and CAD journey, it’s the amazing resilience of the human body and how quickly it can heal.

Throughout these 20+ years, one of the keys to thriving with CAD has been seeing my cardiologist every year, not putting it off. I have learned to listen to my body better. When I feel the slightest hint that something is not right, it’s time to ask my heart if it could be my heart. I then take action.

The single most important thing to me throughout my CAD journey has been the support of my wife of 43 years, L’Louise. It is vital to have someone to advocate you in any heart-related situation. These are important matters that can lead to death. L’Louise is always there with me at every appointment and test. Sometimes, when I get bad news, it is hard to focus. L’Louise’s keen listening skills allow me to pick up everything. She is always open to new questions and eager to find the answers. We are still madly in love.

L’Loiuse and I are both retired now. We both love the Mississippi River in Winona (MN), where we first met. We spend many days each summer on the river’s backwaters, hanging out on a sandybar. We love Ames, Iowa and its vibrant college town. We are avid Iowa State sports fans and love the many benefits of living in a college town.

My mantra remains: “Defy perceived limitations.” I always like to believe that I’m at 100% of what I’m capable of doing, even with the compromised heart function I’m so thankful to have.

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