I want to tell a story about my friend Matt.
Matt and I at the starting line
When I first made this blog, a guy named Matt from Santa Rosa, CA sent me a message. Matt is a fellow cyclist who, when he was 19 years old (about 16 years ago), received the Ross procedure, a type of open heart valve replacement surgery. He wrote me because he found out that he needed to have another operation to replace the valves that were implanted years ago (biological valves often need to be replaced, but do not require blood thinners). He was following this blog, and challenged me to sign up for the Levi’s Gran Fondo ride in Santa Rosa. A Gran Fondo is a type of bike ride that often involves thousands of riders of different abilities. The riders are timed and while some people race; many take a more casual approach. The ride was a little less than a year from my initial surgery, and 8 months after his. The Gran Fondo was going to be a great goal for both of us on our ride to recovery, a celebration of our lives as cardiac athletes.
I had my complication and needed a reoperation in March of 2014. That was terrible, and it set my recovery back, but I was still ready for the ride, which was in October 2014. Matt had some complications during his surgery, which made his recovery a little rough in the beginning, but like me, he was ready for the ride.
My roommate John and I drove up to his house the night before the ride, and I chatted with him for the first time in person. Matt and I compared battle scars, and discussed the challenges that we both faced throughout our recoveries. We both had extra loud valves that could be heard across the room. We were both thankful for our lives, and our ability to ride our bikes.
In the morning we suited up and rode to the starting line. We snapped a few pictures as thousands of other cyclist trickled in until the starting line was just a hoard of riders. The ride was 67 miles, and when I finished, I was overcome with many emotions, and tears. I remember just saying to myself, “Thank you, Thank you, Thank you….”
Fast forward a few months to February of this year. Matt called me from a hospital bed. He had pain in his leg, which indicated a blood clot. Matt has mechanical valves (like me), and takes Coumadin as an anticoagulant. If the level of anticoagulation (or ‘thinness’) of the blood gets too low, clots can form, The clot forms on the valve, and can break off and get lodged in the leg. The other possibility is that there is an infection (endocarditis) of the valve, and a clump of bacterial vegetation breaks off and gets lodged just like a clot.
My second surgery was caused by endocarditis. Bacterial endocarditis can be very fatal, so I was so scared for Matt. I really hoped that he did not have an infection. The doctors ran their blood cultures and echocardiograms and determined that he did not have endocarditis! This was great news! The clot in his leg was treated with heparin, and he was released.
A week or so later I received a call from Matt’s sister. Matt talked about our friendship with her and she got my number from his email. She told me, “Matt passed away.”
Though Matt did not have an infection, he was having chronic clotting issues, and a clot dislodged from his heart, and went to his brain. I was driving when I found out. Alone in my car, I cried and screamed.
Matt’s death hit me hard because he was my peer. I saw myself in him, and I saw myself in his death. “That’s me,” I thought to myself.
This journey has brought me many new friends. Through my blogging, I have met others who have been through, or are going through valve surgery. We share a common bond, and through the internet we connect and share our experiences with each other. It is difficult to talk about our journeys with family and friends who have not gone though it themselves. Even though they empathize and care, they do not fully understand the emotional and physical baggage that comes with heart surgery.
I am so thankful to have met Matt and shared this experience with him. Like me, all he wanted was to recover, and get back to the sports he loved. He was a cyclist, a skier, and a great man. I wish we could share a beer and ride together again. Here’s to you Matt. Cheers.