Heart attack doesnt have to be the end of an athletes career

Credit: Nick Wilson/Allsport
In 1996, Joe Nedza was the type of scruffy-voiced, straight-faced district attorney one might expect to see on a television crime series.

Contemplating running for judge, he was a well-respected, lead lawyer with the District Attorneys office in Orange County, Calif. His co-workers referred to him as the Big Dog.

In his personal life, he was juggling a running schedule of 50 miles a week with spending time with his two school-aged children. Having just passed his annual doctors physical, the robust 5-foot 10-inch University of Southern California graduate thought he was invincible.

But then the unthinkable happened, and Nedzas life was changed forever.

Two miles into his usual six-mile lunch run, he began feeling an unbearable pressure on his chest he describes like an elephant sitting on me. He told his buddy to go on. Nedza turned around and walked back to his office, where he had a co-worker drive him to the emergency room.

Several hours later, he was lying on a gurney in the emergency room at St. Josephs hospital in Orange, Calif. He recalls eying the spider web of electrodes that were attached to his chest monitoring his heartbeat, and thinking his athletic career was over.

Dr. Greg Thomas, a triathlete and cardiologist with the Mission Internal Medical Group in Mission Viejo, Calif., was not surprised to hear of an athlete having heart problems.

Thomas says that the myth that athletes were immune to heart problems dates back to 30 years ago, when it was unheard-of that a runner or athlete could suffer from a heart attack. Then, after marathoner and well-known running author Jim Fixx died while running, it was proven that athletes are not immune.

The chances of an athlete having a heart attack is a matter of probabilities," Thomas says.

If your parents have a history of heart attacks, then your own chance of having a heart attack is greater. Thomas recommends a stress test to athletes over 40 who have increased risk factors, such as heredity.

He emphasizes that, because of exercise, an athlete will have a decreased chance of heart disease, because exercise is a preventative measure.

The good news is, in most cases, an athlete can return to racing, says Thomas, "if the athlete who has had the heart attack can pass a stress test.

Most people do pass and can return to racing, but must heed the most unthinkable doctors order: If someone is passing you, let him go.

Thomas says that most heart patients are scared enough to follow his advice.

As it turns out, Nedza had a partial blockage of his heart and was given a drug to dissolve the clot called TPA. Several days later he passed a treadmill test and was sent home to begin a home walking program.

His doctor immediately set limits for him, which included wearing a heart-rate monitor to keep his heart rate under 85 percent while exercising, and was forbidden to push himself to exhaustion.

Nedza says he tried to stay positive and focused on his program. Beginning with one mile, he gradually increased his distance and pace and was soon running one to two miles a day at a slow pace. Several weeks later his doctor urged him to return to the sports he loved but at a moderate pace.

Within six months, he had increased his running speed, began swimming and riding his bike and was planning to do his first triathlon.

Five years later, Nedza continues to work at the DAs office but now understands the need to balance work with workouts and has transferred from a high-volume criminal calendar to a more manageable branch court.

He now considers himself a triathlete, dividing his time between masters swim workouts five mornings a week at the University of California Irvine, running 15 to 20 miles a week at moderate pace and cycling with friends on weekends. He recently competed in the Pacific Coast Triathlon in Laguna Beach and is looking forward to the Santa Barbara County Triathlon sprint race on August 25.

Even though the Big Dog says hes abiding by his doctors orders, its hard for him to hold back when people are passing him. But hes living with it and enjoying his newfound sport and friends.

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