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By Collin Markum
It was early October 2016, and I was standing in front of my 11th grade United States history class teaching when I began to not feel right. Even though I wasn't exerting myself any more than usual, I could feel my heart racing. I also felt short of breath. I finished the period and then sat down between classes. I finished the day with a little less motion and at a lower volume than what was my typical enthusiastic manner.
I figured it was probably dehydration: I was uptalking. Or stress: Hurricane Matthew was scheduled to pass through the area in a few days, and we had not done our emergency supply shopping yet. I felt better when I was resting, so I thought surely it would pass.
I told my wife, Michelle, a nurse at Mayo Clinic who had worked for years in Cardiology, that I wasn't feeling well. But I downplayed the effects. After all, I was only 37 and had never had a major health problem.
Due to the inclement weather, school was cancelled for the rest of the week. We opted to ride out the storm in our house in Green Cove Springs, Florida. I still had a few instances of breathlessness and an elevated heart rate. My wife thought I should go to the emergency room, but I didn't feel terrible so long as I was at rest. That Sunday, Oct. 9, I taught a class at church even though I was drenched in sweat by the end of the lesson. Clearly, I needed to visit the doctor.
On Monday I saw my primary care physician who heard a heart murmur while evaluating me. He advised us to go to the emergency room immediately. Driving there I felt heavy anxiety, as this was clearly more serious than I had expected.
Upon arrival at Mayo Clinic's Florida campus, I was admitted to the hospital, and a team of health care professionals attempted to identify my condition, which proved to be quite complicated. We would learn that I was in heart failure and had abnormal levels of heart, kidney, liver and thyroid function. On Tuesday, a series of tests revealed that the source of the problem was a sinus of Valsalva aneurysm — a rare cardiac aneurysm near the aortic valve.
By this point family and friends had rallied to take care of our year-old son, so my wife could stay by my side. Though it was clear that open-heart surgery would be necessary, I was at peace. I knew I would have excellent surgeons, and I promised myself that I would be dedicated to rapid recovery and rehabilitation.
Surgery was scheduled for the morning of Oct. 12. My cardiothoracic surgeons, Dr. Richard Agnew and Dr. Erol Belli, were incredible. The sinus of Valsalva aneurysm is in a difficult location for surgery, but their expertise and collaboration met the challenge. A day later, I was using a walker to roam the hallway outside my hospital room. I believe it was a real team effort that helped me get on the road to recovery. Everyone from the nurses, respiratory therapists and physical therapists to the clinic staff was wonderful and provided excellent care.
I was released home but found that the following weeks brought a challenge I hadn't expected. How do you tell your toddler son that you can't lift him when he wants to play? How do you just sit when there are groceries to be carried in? It was difficult. But at Michelle's insistence, and with the help of family and friends, I followed the rest and five-pound lifting limits I had been given. And soon I experienced my favorite part of the recovery process: cardiac rehabilitation.
Having permission to exercise again was exciting, but the bonds I created with the other men and women working alongside me were inspirational. We had different scars, a wide age range and varying levels of complications to work through, but we were all doing our best. The encouragement and companionship we provided to each other made each session a joy. The trainers and medical staff in the rehab unit exhibited skill and passion in challenging each of us to exert ourselves while also accommodating our varying limitations and relative levels of health.
Based on my progress at rehab and checkups with Dr. Norm Patton, I was cleared to return to teaching when school started after the new year. My students and colleagues welcomed me back warmly. When the school year ended, I was able to catch up on some needed play time with my son over the summer. I continue to feel great. My stamina is back, and I'm looking forward to another successful academic year.
Although my active recovery is over, I resolved early on to find a way to give back to Mayo Clinic and to raise awareness and provide aid to others who may be in my situation. This year, I've opted to form a team to participate in the 2017 First Coast Heart Walk to raise money for the American Heart Association.
My family was my motivation to have a complete recovery and live a full, active life. My goal is to complete the 5K walk and raise funds that can be used for research and help others overcome cardiac disease and return to their families.