Ask 60-year old Wayne Wright how many marathons he’s done in his life and he answers, “I ran 36 marathons before I died, and 39 marathons after I died.” The retired Army major thrives on adrenaline. He was an Army Ranger, a Green Beret, a Commander of a battalion of drill sergeants, and a competitive marksman. He was also trained as an EMT. So when he had symptoms of angina during the first mile of a 10K road race in February 2007, he knew something was wrong.
“I had a pain in my heart. A heart attack has a very crushing feeling like ‘get that truck off my chest,’” he explained, “I didn’t have that – it was just like somebody stuck a knife in my heart.” After he warmed up, the heart got more blood or more endorphins kicked in, and the pain went away. Wayne finished the race. “I had a discomfort that felt like a sunburn, but inside my chest,” he recalled, “A sunburn is not debilitating. It’s just annoying.”
On Monday, he went to see his physician, who told him, “Of course, it can’t be your heart. You’re a marathoner.” Wayne thought he was in the clear. The next weekend, he went to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina and ran a 3:49 marathon – the second fastest marathon in his life. Two weeks later, he ran a 3:56 marathon in Napa Valley, California. He flew directly from there to Reno to go skiing at Lake Tahoe for a week.
After he arrived home, he competed in a 5K and won his age group. “I still had this nagging sunburn-like chest pain. Aspirin helped,” he explained, “On Tuesday, I was supposed to fly to Indiana. I decided to cancel my flight and went to the emergency room instead.”
A routine enzyme test ruled out myocardial infarction. The ER doctor wanted to send him home. Fortunately, the cardiologist on call knew Wayne personally, and suggested they do one more test as a precaution. When they prepped him for the catheterization, they told him it would only take 15 minutes and he could watch it on a video monitor. “My wife knew something was wrong when it took an hour and a half,” he said, “I knew something was wrong when I woke up from the procedure.”
The doctors discovered that his left anterior descending artery, commonly referred to as, “the widow maker” which serves the entire left ventricle was 80% blocked. Three other arteries also showed significant obstructions. Two days later, they performed a quadruple bypass on Wayne.
The surgical team at Holmes Regional Medical Center pioneered using arteries instead of veins for bypasses. Their theory is that arteries have thicker muscle walls and are accustomed to contracting more with each beat than a vein. They also believe arteries will last longer, but they haven’t been doing it long enough to know for sure.
For Wayne’s surgery, they replaced those blocked arteries with an artery out of his right forearm, a vein out of his left leg, and his mammary artery. “So I can never breastfeed,” Wayne quipped.
Maybe not, but the man sure can run. And he wasn’t about to let open-heart surgery stop him. He’s not one to sugarcoat things either. It was rough at first. “When I woke up from surgery I said, ‘I must’ve died during surgery because this is hell.’” The surgery took four hours. They stopped his heart for two hours. Which is why he’s known as “The Dead Guy.”
He started walking laps around the large hospital’s hallways. Nine days after his surgery, Wayne walked a 5K in downtown Melbourne, Florida. “Those folks made a big deal out of it and put my picture in the newspaper,” he said, “I didn’t have the heart to tell them I walked six miles the day before.”
Four weeks after his surgery, his doctor said, “Well I guess you can start running a little.” Wayne pointed out to the doctor, “That’s like telling an alcoholic ‘you can start drinking a little.’ So let's put some parameters on it.” You see Wayne is a member of the 50 States Marathon Club and Marathon Maniacs. He completes more marathons in a year than many avid runners run in a lifetime.
His doctor instructed him to run a mile and then walk for a few minutes to see how he felt. He was afraid the endorphins might mask the pain. “I ran for a minute and it kicked my butt. Then I walked five. The next day I was able to walk a minute and 15 seconds and walk 4:45. The day after that it was 1:30,” he recalled.
Two weeks after the check-up and six weeks after surgery, Wayne “The Dead Guy” entered the Flying Pig Marathon in Cincinnati, Ohio. He alternated between running four minutes and walking three minutes until he crossed the finish line in 4:37. “That was the only marathon I ever started where there was a serious concern if could I finish,” he admitted, “I had no idea what was going to happen. I thought it might take me 6 hours or more. I felt great. Fantastic! I’ve got a rebuilt carburetor baby, I’m good to go!” People in his age group joked, “Uh-oh, we know what you could do when your heart was bad. We’ve got to look out now!’
Despite good results at his next few marathons, Wayne was concerned that his Garmin 305 showed his heart rate was a few beats higher than normal – whether he was racing or just reading the newspaper. His cardiologist ordered a nuclear stress test, which showed there was nothing wrong with the plumbing. An ultrasound revealed hypokinesis, which meant not enough movement when his heart pumped. “Normal ejection of the blood out of the left ventricle is 70%. I’m down to 45%. Anything below that is congestive heart failure,” he explained, “I’m right at the border. My heart has to beat three times now to give me the same blood that it used to do with two beats. A small percentage of people have this after open-heart surgery.”
He also watched his father and five uncles die of congestive heart failure. “I watched my father die over a period 10 years. Yes, he was breathing. Yes, he was walking and talking. But he had no quality of life. I’m not going to go that way. I’m going to live every day to the absolute maximum. Each day I wake up is a good one. I’m not going to sit here and wait for death to catch me. I’m going slide into the grave sideways and go ‘Wow, what a ride!’” he explained.
That is certainly one huge motivating factor that drives Wayne to keep running. “I have a can-do spirit, not a defeatist one. In the Green Berets we had a motto, “The difficult, we do right away. The impossible takes a while longer. Miracles are by appointment only.”
Then he added, “Have you seen the movie The Bucket List? My Bucket List is to run a marathon on every continent.” Three weeks ago, he ran the Red Cross Big Five Marathon through a private wild animal preserve in Africa. Before his surgery, he ran marathons in North America, Europe, Antarctica, and Asia, Next year, he’ll go to South America and then Australia. And later this year, he’ll complete his quest to run a marathon in every state in the U.S. He’s returning to Indiana where he was raised to run the Indianapolis Marathon in October. “I’m planning a big party with my family and friends.” The man does have an appointment.
Photos from the Red Cross Big Five Marathon: Top: Runners from the 50 States Marathon Club, this group of six has completed over 1100 marathons; Runners were accompanied by armed rangers to protect them from the wild animals; Elephants blocked the course along the way.
NOTE: If you have a good comeback story, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d like to interview you. I hope this will be one of many Comeback Kid stories. Here’s why.