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From Open Heart Surgery to Open Water Swimming

By Sheila Carpenter-van Dijk

On October 2, 2009, Lisa Smaga, my best friend and lane mate for 10 years, was wheeled into the operating room for open-heart surgery. She was only 49, and we were both quite scared. Fast forward to October 2, 2010 and if you were standing on a beach in Sarasota, Fla., you would have seen the two of us swimming the 1K race in the Tropical Splash and Dixie Zone Open Water Championships to celebrate the one-year anniversary of her operation. It was her first competition since the surgery.

It is easy now to say “fast forward,” but Lisa’s road to recovery and racing was long. Her open-heart surgery was necessitated by an 80% blockage in a major artery near her heart. The blockage was not due to cardiovascular disease, bad diet or lack of exercise, but rather, an accident of birth. Genetically, she was predisposed to having this problem and did not know it. She was fit, swimming competitively, and living a healthy lifestyle. She even swam at the YMCA Nationals in May 2009.

But in June 2009, she began feeling more tired than usual. Lisa knew it could be anything or nothing, but in her gut she felt something was really wrong. The tired feeling was soon compounded by pain in her jaw while swimming. The harder she swam, the more the pain bothered her. She went in for a check-up with her primary physician, who ordered lab work and an EKG. The results were normal. Her employers and friends, Drs. Jim and Gail Norman, thought the medical investigation shouldn’t stop there and sent her to Dr. James Smith, a cardiologist. He quickly diagnosed the problem and three days later Lisa endured the insertion of a heart catheter, and the following day she was in the OR for open-heart surgery. The surgery was a single by-pass, non-stentable, coronary artery bypass graft. These are scary medical words, which describe a frightening time for both of us, as I needed Lisa in my swimming life and my dry land life.

Lisa’s surgery is clinically associated with a high incidence of depression, but she beat the odds. She attributes being an athlete with her physical, emotional and mental success during the recovery process. Because of her overall health she was weaned off the ventilator within a few hours of surgery and spent less than 12 hours in the Cardiac Care Unit. That was her first victory. The following few weeks were a challenge mentally and emotionally, but she quickly added another victory when she completed cardiac rehabilitation and was cleared to enter the pool for the first time. That was the moment she realized she was alive, she could still swim and that everything would be okay.

Lisa’s comeback race was a joy to swim for both of us. I paced us for about 300 meters so we could warm up slowly without a spike in heart rate. She was breathing to the left and I was breathing to the right. We were side by side stroke for stroke and could look each other in the eye. I saw she was doing great and motioned for her to go on.  That was the last I saw of her until the beach where she was waiting for me with a great, big hug.  She finished a terrific second in her 50-54 age group, and we are already planning our next races.

Lisa is a real-life reason to stay fit, because if you are, even when life throws you curve balls you can’t dodge, you will have the strength to keep playing the game until you come out a winner. She and I are once again lane mates, still best friends, and we swim regularly with Tampa Metro Masters. With our coach, Bruce Young, on deck, there is no puttering around in the pool; we swim and swim hard. Undoubtedly this helped Lisa recover and get race ready. As Lisa says: “Bruce encourages us to step out of our comfort zone and helps to provide the confidence that is needed after a traumatic incident; more importantly being a part of a Masters team has provided a huge support mechanism. Everything is shiny and new again, and I’m excited about swimming again and about life!”

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