Many people approach training for a triathlon as a chore, something they have to endure to reach their ultimate goal. But for Chris Wagner, training is a pleasure — one he doesn’t take for granted.
“The idea that I can get up on a given Saturday and go out and run 10 miles is a real gift,” he says. “I wake up in the morning and think, ‘I get to do this.’”
Running 10 miles wasn’t always so easy for Chris. The 44-year-old was born with a constriction underneath his aortic valve. Although he had a procedure at age 9 to correct the problem, when he hit his mid-30s, Chris began noticing that exercise was becoming increasingly difficult.
‘Running wasn’t fun anymore’
“I had always been active, and had even run the Boston Marathon a few times as a bandit in my 20s,” he says. “But I reached a point where running wasn’t fun anymore and I decided to give it up. I didn’t realize then that it was the first symptom of my condition recurring.”
A few years passed and Chris started to gain weight. When he decided to become active again, it was more difficult than he imagined. He was easily fatigued and it would often take him a few days to recover after. Then he started feeling pressure in his chest.
“I had never experienced chest pain before and I was pretty concerned,” he says. “It was clear to me something was not right.”
Chris told his cardiologist about his symptoms and concerns, but he was stumped. Another doctor recommended Chris contact the Boston Adult Congenital Heart (BACH) Program at Boston Children’s Hospital.
“When I learned BACH is a program especially for adults who had heart disease as kids, it made perfect sense that’s where I should be seen,” Chris says. “I booked an appointment right away.” It was early 2015.
A new doctor, a new perspective
Chris met with Dr. Michelle Gurvitz, one of the cardiologists in the BACH Program.
“She ran a few tests and said it was clear what was going on: The constriction was back and I needed a second surgery,” he says. “It suddenly all made sense. I had always wondered in the back of my mind if my heart condition was holding me back physically.”
Chris scheduled surgery for that June with Dr. Sitaram Emani, a cardiac surgeon in the BACH Program. The surgery went as planned, but at the end of the operation, Dr. Emani found some additional tissue causing a blockage near Chris’s mitral valve, so he went back in and removed that as well.
“Dr. Emani said he suspected the other tissue had always been there and had just never been discovered,” he says.
Chris healed quickly and was back home four days later. Then he began his recovery process, eager to see how it would feel to begin exercising again. He started by walking, gradually going a little further each day.
“After a couple of weeks, I was walking briskly about 8 miles a day. I wasn’t getting tired or having any symptoms, so I kept increasing,” he says. “After three weeks, I started doing a light jog to see what that felt like and worked up from there. Five weeks after my surgery I ran five miles — 10 weeks after surgery I ran 10 miles.”
Chris was amazed. Gone were his fatigue and chest pain. “I felt better than I ever had. It was extraordinary — literally a life-changing experience.”
He began running races and swimming again. The next summer, he competed in an Olympic-distance triathlon exactly one year to the day after his surgery. He also participated in — and was the top fundraiser for — the first Boston Children’s Corporate Cup. He’s also done a number of half marathons, spartan races and two full marathons. And he’s set new personal records for his times.
Inspiring each other
When he met with Dr. Gurvitz for his annual visit earlier this year, they got to talking about triathlons, and she shared that she was training for one. “My friend had also registered for that triathlon, so I signed up, too,” he says. “It was really cool to be training for the same triathlon as my cardiologist.”
Dr. Gurvitz agrees. ““This may sound corny, but as a physician, it was a remarkable experience to have this unique glimpse into my patient’s life and recovery. I think I was as excited as he was to share the experience, and he was even kind enough to wait for me at the finish line.”
Chris’s future goals include completing a half ironman-distance triathlon and climbing all 48 4,000-foot peaks in New Hampshire. While he’s not sure those dreams will ever become reality, he’s approaching them the same way he did his recovery — one step at a time.
“I just keep going a little more until I reach a limit,” he says. “I’ve gotten really good at listening to my body, and I’m just going to keep going.” He credits Dr. Gurvitz and the BACH team for giving him another chance at leading an active life. “I was thrilled to learn about BACH, and love that it’s right here in Boston,” says Chris. “When I was in the hospital after surgery, it struck me that people come from all over the world for the care offered here, and for me it’s just a bike ride away.”
Learn more about the BACH Program.