Posted by: walkingthefault | February 18, 2008

Walking for Health

For an older person, walking is the best thing you can do for your health. Don’t even think about going to the gym, with its treadmills and stairmasters, and weird machines that exercise muscles you have never even heard of, let alone use. That’s absolutely boring! Walking is all you need. And if flat terrain is not enough to get the heart and lungs going, get up in the hills and climb a few of the stairways, like the Maryland Steps pictured here.

Maryland Steps

I am not a doctor, or an expert in fitness. But I have had more than enough illness in my life to know how much walking has benefited me.

I had polio as a child, at age ten. It affected my back and leg muscles. Fortunately not the lungs. After a year in a wheelchair I had to learn to walk all over again, using different muscles. When you see me walk, you may even burst out laughing. Remember Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks from the 1970’s, with John Cleese? I walk sort of something like that. But I get along the street, and that’s what matters.

In 1995, when I was 52, I had a couple of mini-heart attacks, requiring angioplasty to open up the arteries. Then the mitral valve started to fail. In 2000 I had the mitral valve repaired, with excellent results, but a disastrous aftermath. I contracted Methicillin Resistant Staphyloccus Aureus (MRSA) before it became fashionable, in the sternum, where they had wired my chest shut after the heart operation. It went on a rampage, and no amount of digging and scraping and flesh removal would stop it. After four operations I was a day or two away from death, when they decided to do something drastic. I signed the papers not knowing whether I would ever wake up.

With an incision going from my groin to my throat, they removed my sternum, the front part of my ribcage, and all of the flesh in the front of my chest which was infected, leaving a hole about eight inches in diameter and two inches deep. They built a new chest wall using some of my abdominal muscles, and by means of plastic surgery and lots of stretching, managed to find enough flesh and skin to cover the opening. The whole operation took about 10 hours. I was on intravenous vancomycin for a month in the hospital, and then for two more weeks at home. But the infection was vanquished, and I lived to tell the tale.

Four months later I was back at work. Over the next couple of years, multiple hernias occurred where various abdominal components migrated up into my chest cavity, and I had to have a couple more operations to try to fix that. They’ve done pretty much all they can for me, so now I have to live with this large lump of whatever it is protruding from the middle of where my chest used to be.

Many men have a beer belly. I am the proud owner of a beer chest. Because there is no sternum to hold it down, my heart has migrated up to the top part of the chest, and beats away merrily just below my throat. For a while I wore a chest protector like a hockey player, but it got to be too cumbersome, so I gave it up.

During all that time, the electrical system in my heart pretty much gave up, and I was on drug after drug to try to control the fibrillation. Then I started getting asthma attacks. After four more years at a pretty stressful job I decided to retire, in 2004. On my first day of retirement I started walking, a little bit more every day until I was up to four miles. The only time I couldn’t do the distance I wanted was if the heart was out of rhythm, because of the lack of oxygen, or if I was having an asthma episode.

But I kept at it, and got fitter and fitter. The asthma dwindled to the point where I gave up all of my inhalers. Then I started the more difficult part of Berkeley, in the hills with all the steep grades and stairways. The arrhythmia got worse though, and my doctors decided to put me on a drug of last resort. I had to spend a week in hospital undergoing tests to see if I could tolerate the drug, and that’s when they found out that my heart kept stopping at night, sometimes for 30 or 40 seconds at a time. Fortunately it always started up again spontaneously, but they think it had been going on for quite some time. That’s kind of scary, because I live alone at home. So they wouldn’t let me out of there until they had implanted a pacemaker. So now, every time my heart stops, which is several times a night, the pacemaker kicks in and restarts it.

Just two days after getting the pacemaker, I was back up in the hills, dragging myself up the stairways. Ten steps at a time, then turn around and rest and enjoy the view. Then another ten steps, and another rest. It took me another year to finish the hilly areas, and I am now almost done. Only three more miles to go.

What a journey. I’ll be done just before my 65th birthday in March 2008, ready to start the next project of walking the Hayward Fault in Berkeley.

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Responses

  1. Very interesting and well done, Andy. I knew about your health issues to a limited degree, but your easy to understand explanation helped me understand it much better.

    I will follow your exploration of the Fault with interest. In the ’60’s and the early ’70’s, I lived in the LA area, wihch included one and my first fairly strong earthquake, in the 7. something range, I believe. They are scarey, but interesting to study. So, we’ll see what you come up with.

    Tom

  2. Congratulations on walking Berkeley and now the fault lines. I read your profile in the BPWA newsletter and got your link from Jen’s Walking Berkeley blog.

  3. I’m looking for someone who had sternum removed to talk to a friend of mine who had the same experience. Please e mail me if this is doable. It would be good to connect with someone who has alread been through this.


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