USA Triathlon News Blogs My Story Every Breath a Gift

Every Breath a Gift

By Scott Zacaroli | Sept. 05, 2016, 4:53 p.m. (ET)

Three years ago I found myself on my hands and knees in a hotel room in California pleading with God for my life. After a routine jog on a business trip, my heart rate had suddenly rocketed from 70 beats per minute to over 200, and stayed there without ceasing. My chest felt like it would explode, and I grew weaker and weaker as I crawled around the room looking for my phone.

I was admitted to a hospital in Los Angeles and had no idea what was about to unfold.

The lead doctor strongly recommended an electrophysiology study — sort of an exploratory to try and uncover what was happening. They’d send a catheter through an artery into my heart and perform an ablation on the nerve that was causing the issue. The procedure seemed to have been routine, but what I didn’t know at the time was the surgeon had mistakenly “burned” the wrong nerve and had now damaged the function of my heart even farther. Though my heart rate was now lower, it was completely erratic and unstable.

When I was released from the hospital, I knew something was not right. I stood on the street in Venice in a daze. All I wanted was to get back to New York, back to the life I knew, back to my family. With my wife’s help I managed to return to the East Coast, counting every minute of the five-hour flight. The relief I felt touching down gave me a sense of security that things would somehow be OK. But the next week of my life proved otherwise.

Scott Zacaroli A friend urged me to see a doctor at New York University Hospital named Larry Chinitz. When I met him, his observations confirmed something was wrong. But he wanted to let the next few weeks play out and see how my heart recovered before doing anything else. I tried to go about my everyday life. And three days later, on a crowded evening in lower Manhattan, my worst fear manifested. The sudden blast from 70 to over 200 beats per minute occurred again. But this time it came like a punch in the chest.

I called Chinitz’s office immediately. His nurse urged me to come to the hospital as fast as possible, but with Friday night traffic, an ambulance would be too slow. I begged a woman to give up her cab and sat in gridlock traffic, in tears once more, pleading to God.

I wound up at NYU, and back in the operating room that very night. Because of the previous damage, Dr. Chinitz was limited with what he could do. He was as aggressive as he could be, and as reassuring as he dare. He gave me no illusions about the situation. For the next few weeks, life just hung in the balance. But those weeks turned into months without another major incident.

My research revealed I had ended up in the hands of one of the most skilled surgeons in the nation. When I eventually asked Dr. Chinitz if I could try jogging again, I think he was as excited at the prospect as I was. I also remember his response when I told him I was afraid to board a plane: “Don’t underestimate the post-traumatic stress of all of this … give yourself a break. I think you’ll move past it …” 

I realized I was now faced with a choice. Would I live under the fear of all that had happened and allow that to define the trajectory of my future, or would I live in the face of that fear with a deep sense of gratitude for the second chance — for the life — I had been granted? As William Wallace once said “every man dies, not every man truly lives.” What would it look like to truly live?

As part of regaining my health, I had decided to see a physical therapist about a shoulder surgery I had years ago from which I had never fully recovered. To my shock, he had a similar story, and was in the process of pushing through his recovery. He was an avid triathlete who looked at me and said “when this shoulder is back in shape, let’s get you into a race.”

The idea seemed ridiculous given all I had experienced. Yet the very thought of living deliberately compelled me to start swimming, biking and jogging. My progress was slow. But one day I found myself on the phone with Dr. Chinitz again, this time asking what he thought of my trying to run a race.

In August of 2015, I crossed the finish line of a triathlon in Santa Barbara with my family present. They knew why I was racing. They knew why I cried like a child when I heard my name called at the end.

For me this sport is not just a way to stay in shape. It is a way to swim out a little deeper in life, in relationships, in experiences and most of all, in faith. Shortly after my race I did something else I had always thought was more than I could handle: I quit my job of 19 years, started my own company and changed careers.

Whatever you are contemplating, do not wait. And whatever you are facing, do not fear.

For more, visit scottzacaroli.com or @scottzacaroli on Instagram.

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