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Unstoppable: Racing Ten Weeks Post Open-Heart Surgery

By Brandon McDonald | Dec. 03, 2019, 2:46 p.m. (ET)

mcdonald riding bike

My journey began in October 2018 when I competed in the draft legal age group sprint distance national championships in Sarasota, Florida. It was only the fourth triathlon I had competed in, and I placed eighth in my age group, qualifying me for the world championships in Lausanne.
In May, I was training hard for the Make-a-Wish Foundation/Grand Rapids triathlon and the upcoming world championships. It was early on a Sunday morning, and I was out for a supposedly easy four-mile run. Nearing the end, I saw that my watch was showing a heart rate of 221 bpm. Suddenly, I felt a painful squeeze on my left shoulder radiating down my arm and I knew that something wasn’t right. I finished the run anyway.

I wondered if this could be a stroke or the early stages of a heart attack. I’m not a fan of hospitals, so I dismissed the thought and decided I would go in and get checked out if my symptoms progressed. I went about my day as usual, still feeling some chest tightness and loss of control in my left arm. 

The next morning, I hit the pool for a light swim, but my watch kept showing an abnormally high heart rate. The lifeguard stopped me and asked if I had injured my arm because it was just kind of flopping in the water. At this point, I figured the worst was over and I had likely had a stroke or minor heart attack. 

The following day, my workout consisted of time-trial sprints. I wasn’t going to take it easy if I didn’t have to, and my heart rate remained within normal ranges until the last 800 meters when it spiked to 210 bpm. After this occurrence three days in a row, I decided it was best to stop my workouts until I saw a doctor and knew what was going on.

A week passed, and I finally convinced myself it was time to go in. I assumed they would run a few tests and tell me everything was alright. I intended to head to the Spectrum Health Meijer Heart Center in Grand Rapids, Michigan that has a reputation for being cutting-edge with heart health, but my car broke down in the driveway. I pulled out my bike and rode to the local hospital instead. 

They saw a heart murmur but no signs of a stroke or heart attack. I was recommended for further testing and transferred to Grand Rapids. The next morning, I had a stress echo which was terminated early due to my systolic blood pressure exceeding 250, but the echo portion came back normal. Before releasing me, the doctor ordered one more test just to be sure. 

The PA who brought the results of my CT scan looked very concerned, and I knew something was terribly wrong. They had discovered a rare congenital anomalous of the right coronary artery (RCA). The RCA was twisted and cutting off blood flow to the heart by fifty percent, and it created another blockage of up to seventy percent. The PA explained what is known as sudden death syndrome, where perfectly healthy athletes drop dead in a race or competition. This can be caused by a number of cardiac anomalies, but in general death will occur in a person’s twenties or early thirties and there are often no preceding symptoms.

I am extremely lucky to be alive. A heart catheterization was ordered, and my case was discussed with a team of surgeons who concluded I would need open heart surgery. I wasn’t thrilled about the surgery, but it was definitely better than sudden death. I asked the doctors if I could still compete in the world championships, and they said there was a chance, depending on how well and quickly I healed.

My surgery was scheduled, and I was cleared to complete light-intensity workouts in the meantime. I began creating a plan to heal as fast as I could. I learned that the better shape you are in before a surgery, the faster the healing process after. I also discovered that proper nutrition was another huge factor, and I began taking vitamins to aid in bone development and made sure to consume enough protein. 

My workouts consisted of 24-mile bike rides, keeping my heart rate at or below 156 bpm (where I had symptoms). In order to maintain my upper body strength for swimming, I made sure to work in a lot of resistance training prior to surgery.

June 18, 2019 was the day of my surgery, known as coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) — they replaced my right coronary artery with an artery from the right mammary gland. The day after surgery, I walked to the end of the hallway and back. In the following days I completed one lap around the unit, then two laps, and then four. By day five, I could walk four times throughout the day for a total of two miles each day.

Recovery was much harder than I had expected. Not long before I was to be released, my lung collapsed. They had to perform emergency surgery to fix it, extending my stay in the hospital. Days later, I was finally released to go home.

After I returned home, I walked roughly 4.5 miles per day for four weeks. Shortly after, I started riding a stationary bike and began attending cardiac rehabilitation at Spectrum Health three times a week. The cardiac rehab staff was very knowledgeable and encouraging, and helped me return to training quickly and reach my goals for recovery. 

mcdonald running

At seven weeks, I completed my first run since surgery. I ran two miles, which was much harder than I expected. I was finally cleared to swim again two weeks before the triathlon. My first swim was 250 yards, and I experienced some chest discomfort, so I rested thinking it would improve. My next swim was for 550 yards, and chest discomfort was still present, so I decided to hold off on the swimming until race day. 

The morning of August 31, 2019 I was ten weeks post-surgery. It was race day in Lausanne, Switzerland. I was hoping for a miracle to complete the 750-yard swim with no pain — I had to at least try. I knew I was stepping into unknown territory, and my hopes were to be competitive, but I would be happy just to finish. Either way, I got to represent the USA. 

It took a lot of courage to line up knowing there was a good chance I would finish last in front of the whole world. I could feel my heart beating as we all lined up and the horn sounded. As I neared the first buoy, I was still hanging with the group, but I knew I better slow down. I could feel the lactic acid burning, but no chest pain at all. I completed all 750 yards of the swim, a miracle. I was so excited that I gave a guy from another county a high five as I got out of the water. 

Running into the transition, my legs began to cramp. The bike portion of the race was tough, and I was very depleted for the run. At that point, the sun was hot, and I felt fatigue kicking in, but I kept going. I ran in the sun and down the hills, but walked in the shady stretches and up the hills to maximize the very little energy I had left. 

Finally, I got onto level ground and saw the finish line ahead. My excitement pushed me through the final stretch, and I finished the race, amazing 

even myself. I give all the credit to God for my success. Thank you to my sponsors Rudy Project, the Suunto Factory Team, Skullcandy, and Ogio. I also want to thank all of my family, friends, and amazing staff at Spectrum Health for believing in me and being a huge support through all of this.

I completed a sprint distance triathlon ten weeks post open-heart surgery at the ITU world championships in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Brandon McDonald is a triathlete living in Fremont, Michigan. Follow him on instagram @lovesurfrun.