Joe Church seemed like the picture of good health — until he wasn’t.
An avid marathoner in his mid-60s, Joe was training for a 100-mile race in early December 2017. But on one of his rest days, while on a trip to the store for errands, Joe experienced a cardiac event. In the following 24 hours, he had three more.
Tests showed Joe had multiple blockages in his heart and needed open heart surgery to fix the problems.
“The only question that I asked — which the staff got a kick out of — is, ‘Is this going to be the end of my running career?'” he says.
Joe had the surgery, and months later was in Tokyo, Japan to run in a marathon. Three years later, he remains a competitive runner — motivated to check goals off his list.
“I have a lot of running friends who look up to me because I’m the old guy on the block,” Joe says. ” I keep on telling them the key thing is desire. If you have the desire, you will make everything else work.”
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‘This Had to Change’
The first health wake-up call Joe came about 15 years before he experienced heart problems.
For years, Joe smoked and ate an unhealthy diet. He wasn’t in good shape. All that came into focus during a trip to Ecuador when he was around 50 years old. He couldn’t keep up with the rest of his group on a birdwatching tour.
“I decided right then this had to change,” he says. “If I wanted to do all the traveling that I had been thinking about for so many years, all the plans that I had made were going to go up in smoke if I didn’t do something.”
Joe searched for an activity that suited him. One day, he decided to go for a run at a local park, which had a 3-mile course.
“It was about three weeks before I was able to actually run the whole way around the park,” Joe says. “And once I was able to do that, it became my daily routine because I found that I enjoyed the challenge of it.”
Joe’s new passion was born. He kept building up his endurance. Eventually, he decided to try running a marathon. Then he did another — and qualified for the prestigious Boston Marathon.
He kept going, kept challenging himself, kept achieving.
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‘I Felt Like Somebody Smacked Me Upside the Head’
Joe completed marathons in all 50 states and dozens more on cruise ships. He ran six days a week and took up more running challenges, like 100-mile races.
After 100-mile races in October and November 2017, Joe began training for another the following January. And the day after a 30-mile training run in December, Joe took a quick trip to the grocery store for supplies.
After parking his car, he had a cardiac event and passed out.
“I just remember feeling hot, like sweat breaking out on my forehead,” he says. “And I went out — just completely out. I don’t remember anything whatsoever. When I came to, my car was still running.”
Having never experienced something like that before, Joe called his girlfriend to pick him up.
“I felt like somebody smacked me upside the head,” he says.
After returning home, he had a second cardiac event, passing out again.
Paramedics took him to UPMC Memorial in York, where he had a heart attack and had to be resuscitated. Doctors discovered he had three blockages in his coronary arteries.
When healthy, coronary arteries provide blood to the heart so it can pump. But over time, plaque — deposits made of cholesterol, fats, calcium, and other substances — can build up on artery walls.
Plaque buildup can narrow or block your arteries altogether, restricting blood flow. This is known as coronary artery disease. Sometimes — as in Joe’s case — a heart attack is the first sign of coronary artery disease.
Joe had blockages of 90%, 80%, and 60% in his three arteries. He needed coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) surgery to fix the problem.
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‘What Do I Have to Do to Get to the Next Step?’
Joe was taken to UPMC Pinnacle in Harrisburg, where he was scheduled for surgery.
“Once you hear the personal story about him, you think, this doesn’t seem like the type of guy who should be here,” says David Loran, MD, chief, endovascular and vascular surgery, UPMC Pinnacle. “He’s so fit and has always been so active. But there are a lot of components and aspects to coronary artery disease that go beyond diet and exercise.”
The CABG procedure is the most common open heart surgery in the United States. Surgeons use a graft — a healthy vein or artery from somewhere else in your body — to create a new route for blood to flow around a blocked artery.
Because Joe had three blockages, he needed three grafts.
“Joe obviously is in top shape physically, and he’s a younger patient than maybe the average,” Dr. Loran says. “We were definitely looking at the long-term goal of doing what might be considered a more invasive procedure, but something that’s going to last him a lifetime.”
Joe wasn’t worried about the procedure. He was worried about his running future.
“I can’t say that I felt any fear,” he says. “It was, ‘What am I going to do? What do I have to do to get to the next step?'”
Joe’s surgical team assured him they would do everything they could.
“Whatever people do for their primary activity, our goal is to get them back 100%,” Dr. Loran says.
Before the surgery took place, Joe had another heart attack — his fourth — and doctors resuscitated him again. After that, Dr. Loran successfully performed the surgery and fixed the blockages.
‘What’s Around the Next Bend?’
As soon as Joe woke up, he had one question for his surgical team. The Tokyo Marathon was 66 days away, on his 66th birthday. He wanted to know if he’d be able to run in it.
His doctors said it would be possible — if he healed properly and was able to train in time.
“I said, ‘Look, I will do whatever I need to do,'” Joe says.
Joe’s doctors told him to walk, not run, at first, and gave him a list of other exercises to perform. He did as much exercising as he could.
At a checkup five weeks after his surgery, scans showed that Joe’s breastbone had healed. His doctors cleared him to train for and run in the Tokyo Marathon — but told him to stop if he experienced any sort of chest pain.
Just over two months after his surgery, Joe was in Tokyo, at the starting line.
“It was one of the slowest marathons I’ve done,” he says. “It took me 6 hours and 25 minutes or so, but I got it finished.”
From there, the running continued. He ran another marathon in the Himalayas soon afterward.
Joe still runs five days a week. He still competes in marathons and other races.
But at the same time, he listens to his body. He knows when not to push it. On days he doesn’t run, he does cross training to stay healthy.
The goals never stop — “I have a bucket list that goes on, and on, and on,” he says. Having run a marathon in all 50 states, he is now aiming for 50 countries — and he’s at 44 already. He’s run another 30 or so marathons on cruise ships. As an avid bird watcher, he’s always looking for the next species.
His ordeals have shown him the power of determination. And he’s not about to stop anytime soon.
“I grew up with a father whose mantra to us was, ‘Don’t you want to know what’s around the next bend?'” Joe says. “So I’m always curious about the next thing. What’s around the next bend?”
The UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute has long been a leader in cardiovascular care, with a rich history in clinical research and innovation. As one of the first heart transplant centers in the country and as the developer of one of the first heart-assist devices, UPMC has contributed to advancing the field of cardiovascular medicine.