The marathon of life: Catching up with Greek army lieutenant, 31 years post heart surgery

ASD closure
Ted Sarafis ran the Athens Marathon 30 years after life-saving surgery to close a hole in his heart

Well into his teenage years, Greek army lieutenant Thodoris (Ted) Sarafis thought the scar on his chest was the result of an unfortunate tumble he took as a child.

“My parents told me I had an accident, and that’s where I got my scar,” he says. Sarafis didn’t learn he’d had heart surgery as a toddler until his medical clearance exam for the Greek national karate team at age 16.

Ted took the news in stride, but last year, curiosity got the better of him, and he pressed his father for more information.

That’s when he found out exactly where he’d had his life-saving surgery (the Boston Children’s Hospital Heart Center) and who performed that procedure (Dr. Aldo Casteneda, who now lives and works in Guatemala). Ted then learned more about the details of his diagnosis and the extraordinary measures his parents took in 1984 to save his life.

Ted was born with an atrial septal defect (ASD), a hole in the wall between the upper chambers of the heart. He needed a surgical intervention to close the hole.

This kind of surgery was being perfected at Boston Children’s in the early 1980s, so Ted’s parents, Denis and Maria, decided to go to the U.S. for the procedure. A generous great uncle financed the trip.

Although today ASD closure is considered one of the simpler pediatric heart operations, in 1984 it was new and complicated. Many physicians thought Ted would never live a normal life and surely never compete in sports. Moreover, without the surgery, Ted couldn’t expect to live past his 17th birthday. It was such an emotional time for Denis and Maria that they don’t like talking about it and reliving it, says Ted — which explains the dubious story about the origin of his scar.

A life without limits

Ted army with truckGrowing up, Ted never thought twice about testing the limits of his physical strength. His doctors tried to dissuade him from exercising too much, but Ted chalked it up to their inherent conservative nature. “Many doctors here are overprotective and don’t like you exercising,” he says. “I didn’t pay too much attention to it.”

In high school, Ted joined the track and basketball teams. He earned his black belt in both karate and jujitsu and even competed in international martial arts competitions.

After majoring in physics and business  and finishing his undergraduate degree at American University in Washington, D.C., Ted went on to earn his Master’s in Business Administration at Webster University in Vienna, Austria. Next stop: back to Greece where he enlisted in the army.

Throughout his young adult life, Ted has saved numerous lives.

  • He was twice nominated for the Hellenic Medal of Exceptional Acts and Commendation Medal for saving the lives of three men in a forest fire.
  • He assisted in five search and rescue missions.
  • He worked in a major hospital’s emergency room for eighteen months.
  • He saved two civilians from drowning.

Reflecting on his surgery and what Dr. Casteneda did in 1984, Ted recognizes the chain of events. “If I hadn’t been saved, those lives would not have been saved, either,” he says.

The race of a lifetime

A few months ago, Ted was decided to reach out to Dr. Casteneda, and the two have since exchanged e-mails. Ted also contacted the Heart Center and made an ambitious pledge: he would run the Athens Marathon and donate his medal to the Department of Cardiac Surgery.

The Athens Marathon is the original marathon route from the city of Marathon to Athens. It includes the longest uphill climb of any major marathon (a continuous stretch of about 13 miles) and is widely considered the toughest race in the world.

If I hadn’t been saved, those lives would not have been saved, either.

On Nov. 4, 2015, Sarafis joined 16,000 other runners at the starting line. Next to him was his good friend, Medical Corps Lieutenent General Panayiotis Kotileas, who also happens to be Ted’s physician and first encouraged him to participate in the marathon.

As the group took off, Ted looked around him and noticed two men running behind him in a peculiar manner: one was pulling the other behind him with a rope. The second runner was blind — and still finished the grueling, 26-mile race.

Ted also saw a woman running in front of him whose head was shaved halfway, revealing a scar. “During the race she mentioned to me that she had cancer,” says Ted, “She’d had chemotherapy and just six months ago she had a brain tumor removed.”

“These people,” Ted says, “are more deserving of mention than me. I know it’s a cliché, but as they say, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Not everybody can be an athlete, but everyone can set goals and try to achieve them.”

A brighter future for all

Ted says he decided to run and donate his medal because he wanted to support children, parents and families who come to the Heart Center.

The medal is dedicated to Dr Castaneda and all patients of the cardiology department.

“I hope it gives the kids — and their parents — motivation and strength and encourages them to not lose hope for the future. They are in good hands,” he says.

Apart from participating in the marathon and being an officer in the Marines, Ted enjoys life to the fullest. He is happily married and looks to the future with positive attitude. He lives by the motto of the Greek Marines: “Tharsin Hri.” It means courage is needed.

“It comes from “The Iliad,” Ted explains. “Ulysses said to the Greeks: ‘Courage is needed, and tomorrow will be a better day.’”

Today, patients and families who walk into the Cardiovascular Surgery suite at Boston Children’s can see Ted’s medal and be reminded life is full of possibility.


Ted with his wife, Jelena Djordjevic
Ted with his wife, Jelena Djordjevic

Learn more about the Department of Cardiac Surgery.