Heart surgery: A competitive runner races back

February 07, 2017
seattle_marathon350
Phil McBride with his wife, Lauren, and son Sean at the Seattle Marathon.

Phil McBride is a man in motion. From running competitively to hiking, yoga, working out at the gym and snorkeling in the Galapagos Islands, the 62-year-old lives for his active lifestyle. 

When he entered the 2015 USA Track and Field National Cross Country Championships, Phil felt like he was in the best shape of his life. But that November, about one mile into a race leading up to the championships, Phil couldn’t catch his breath. He powered through but it was “an awful run,” he says.

A diagnosis

At his annual physical the following week, Phil described his symptoms to his doctor, who heard a heart murmur and referred him to a cardiologist. Phil had a stress echocardiogram, which measures the heart’s electrical activity before and after exercising on a treadmill or stationary bike. What had caused Phil to struggle to breathe and brought him to a standstill? 

His cardiologist knew almost immediately: aortic valve insufficiency. This condition occurs when the heart’s aortic valve no longer closes tightly, allowing blood headed for the rest of the body to leak back into the heart. Over time, the heart can’t supply enough blood to the body, causing the shortness of breath and fatigue that Phil was suddenly contending with.

A ‘hugely surprising’ recommendation

Phil came to the Swedish Heart & Vascular Institute for a consultation with Glenn Barnhart, M.D., chief and executive director of Cardiac Services.  Dr. Barnhart recommended surgery to replace Phil’s aortic valve. Phil was shocked. His mother is 95 years old and in good health, and longevity is the norm for his family. “All of this was hugely surprising,” says Phil.

Phil and his wife, Lauren, met again with his cardiologist to see what other options were available.

The choice becomes clear

Phil decided on surgery in a matter of hours. Without it, “my cardiologist literally said I would be able to bowl,” he says. No more running, no more hikes, no more snorkeling in exotic locales. A limited lifestyle with no strenuous activities. And at some point, surgery would be inevitable. “My wife and I looked at each other and said, ‘I have to do it,’ ” says Phil.

Phil says he felt comfortable with Dr. Barnhart so it was back to Swedish for surgery, which was performed on Feb. 1, 2016.

Running again

“I was blown away by the care I got at the Swedish Heart & Vascular Institute,” Phil says. “They were very human about what was happening. I got clear, matter-of-fact explanations for everything. There was no sugarcoating, but they were very compassionate and I was their focus.” 

seattle_marathon_finish_line350
Phil McBride and son Sean cross the finish line at the Seattle Marathon. 
Nine months later, Phil ran a half marathon in 1 hour and 55 minutes – placing second in his division. Ten months after surgery, on Nov. 27, 2016, he ran the Seattle Marathon with his wife, son Sean and son-in-law Charlie. Phil finished in 4 hours and 10 minutes – placing sixth in his division. 

Phil says his remarkable comeback was motivated in part by the specter of self-pity. The urge to dwell on his daunting recovery forced him to move even when he didn’t want to.

Advice and inspiration

Phil’s advice for anyone headed for heart surgery and recovery: Be patient with yourself and accept progress in small steps. It pays off. “I started by walking; then jogging a little and walking a little; then adding hills; then walking and running and so forth,” says Phil. “And I’m still on the way back. I was running pretty competitively.”

His goal is a return to the Track and Field National Cross Country Championships. Phil says he’s found inspiration to push himself and meet life’s challenges head-on in the video “Greater is Coming,” featuring the motivational speaker Les Brown and the Seahawks.

If you’d like to learn more about the Swedish Heart & Vascular Institute, visit our website. To schedule a consultation, call 206-320-4100.