Feinstein: How Swimming Saved My Life

Ten years ago, John Feinstein was a "walking time bomb." If not for swimming, Tim Russert and "a Maryland guy," he might have lost his life 

John Feinstein
June 24, 2019 - 3:44 pm
Swimming Pool

USA Today Images


Red Auerbach used to often say to me, “Let me tell you a story,” which is why I titled the book I wrote about him exactly that.
Today, I come to tell you a story that may have little to do with sports, but actually does in a not-so-far fetched way. For if not for sports—specifically one sport—I wouldn’t be sitting here telling you this story right now.
I hope I’m not tempting fate when I say this: Saturday will mark ten years since I underwent open-heart surgery—I had SEVEN bypasses—and was up walking around the hospital demanding to be let out the next day.
It began innocently enough: when I turned 50, my doctor, Joe Vassallo, suggested I should have a nuclear stress test once a year. My mother—a heavy smoker—had died of a heart attack at 67. My dad had survived three heart attacks before dying at 85 of pancreatic cancer.
“Given your genetics, you should get checked,” Joe said.
I went for my first stress test on the Wednesday after Lucas Glover won the rain-soaked 2009 U.S. Open at Bethpage on Monday afternoon. The only good thing about that week was I had found a place to swim in the mornings near my hotel.
I was in good swimming shape at that time—which is an important part of what happened next.
The way a nuclear stress works is simple: You lie still for 20 minutes while a camera takes pictures of your heart. Then, you get on a treadmill and, as the degree of difficulty is increased, you walk until your heart rate goes over 150 beats a minute. Then, after your heart has been stressed, they take pictures again to see if there are any differences in the heart at rest and the heart stressed.
“If you reach 150 in under six minutes we get a little worried,” Joe told me.
I went almost 12 minutes. “You’re in good shape,” Joe said. “I’ll call you tomorrow when we get the results back to be sure.”
Joe called the next day as promised. “There’s one little black spot at the bottom of one of your arteries,” he said. “My guess is you may have one blockage, in which case they’ll put in a stent. You’ll have to stay overnight but you’ll be back in the pool early next week.”
I was moving the next week and there was a golf tournament in D.C., too—the tournament that the Tiger Woods Foundation eventually let crash and burn.
I explained all this to Joe and said I’d call him in 10 days to set something up to check on the blockage.
“Nah,” he said almost casually. “Let’s just get it over with. I’ve made an appointment for you tomorrow at Washington Hospital Center. They’re the best heart hospital around.”
I didn’t know it at the time, but Joe’s pushiness probably saved my life.
I went in the next day for what’s called an angiogram. It’s really not a difficult procedure. You’re given a local anesthetic, a camera is inserted through your groin and it looks around for blockages. It takes about 20 minutes.
It was the wait—almost four hours—that almost killed me. The doctor who did the angiogram—Lowell Satler—and I chatted throughout the procedure. I joked with the nurses. The awful day was almost over. Or, so I thought.
A few minutes after finishing up, Dr. Satler walked back in, not smiling. “I’m afraid you have seven blockages,” he said. “You’re going to need bypass surgery.”
My first reaction was direct: “You’ve got to be f---- kidding me.”
He wasn’t.
My second was, “That’s just impossible. I swam yesterday. I feel fine. I killed the treadmill. I have NO symptoms at all.”
Dr. Satler nodded. “I know,” he said. “Your heart is strong—very strong—because you swim. That’s the reason you’re still alive. Your heart’s so strong it’s been overcoming the blockages. But you’re headed for a Tim Russert incident. You’re a walking time bomb.”
Tim Russert had died the previous year of a heart attack that killed him in seconds. I had seen him at a baseball game in June 2008. Five days later, he was gone.
The line about a “Tim Russert incident,” made it all real for me, very real. I went from argumentative to terrified in an instant. I looked at Dr. Satler.
“I can’t die,” I said. “I have two children. They need me.”
It was all I could think of—what would happen to my kids if I died.
“You’re not going to die,” Dr. Satler said.
“Okay then,” I said, rallying. “I’m fasting and already drugged. Let’s do it right now.”
Dr. Satler put up a hand. “Our best surgeon’s right down the hall. I’m going to bring him in to talk to you.”
A couple of minutes later, Steve Boyce introduced himself. He took my hand in his and said, “You need this surgery, but you’re going to be fine.”
“Great,” I said. “Let’s do it right now.”
All I could think was, the sooner they did the surgery, the sooner I’d wake up alive and could go on with my life.
Boyce laughed. “Look, you’re the perfect candidate for this surgery because you’re healthy. It’s just your arteries are a mess and we’re going to fix them. But I’ve done two already today. You don’t want me working on you tired.”
Then when?” I asked.
He let go of my hand. “I don’t normally do surgery on Mondays, but I’ll come in Monday morning to do yours,” he said. And then he added: “Even though you’re a f---- Duke guy.”
I cracked up. “Let me guess,” I said. “Maryland.”
He nodded. “I don’t want you to f---- touch me,” I said.
As promised, he did the surgery early Monday morning. It was a long weekend. I called my brother and sister to let them know and a few close friends. My son, Danny, was at a summer camp and, after talking it over with my ex-wife, we decided not to tell him or his sister until after the surgery. If I died, it was going to be traumatic regardless. If I didn’t, I’d rather be able to call him and say, “I’m okay, but I had to have some surgery.”
My brother picked me up at 5 a.m. Monday to drive me to the hospital. I told him to give someone his cell number so they could call him at work when I was out of surgery and he could then relay word to others.
“Jennifer (his wife) says I have to stay at the hospital with you,” he said.
“Why?” I asked. “It’ll be at least two hours before I go in and then four hours of surgery. It’s a waste of time.”
“She says I have to be there in case you kick,” Bobby said.
Thanks for that, little brother.
I didn’t kick. Boyce did a great job—apparently—and I was out of the hospital in three days. By rule, I had to spend the first night in the ICU—never have I enjoyed watching highlights of a Mets LOSS as much as I did that night. The next morning, a nurse practitioner came in with a device that had a small ball at the bottom. There was a place to blow into it to make the ball go up. It went from zero to 50.
“As soon as you can get the ball to 25, you can go to a private room,” the nurse practitioner said. “Won’t happen today, but maybe by tomorrow.”
“Let me try it now,” I said.
She shrugged and handed it to me. I blew 45.
She was stunned. “I’ve never had a patient do that the morning after bypass,” she said. “Never.”
“I’m a swimmer,” I answered.
Later that morning, I was walking around the hospital, yelling at Dr. Boyce to get me the hell out of there. The only reason I stayed three days was because insurance required it.
The doctors said my problems were more genetic than anything else, and I’d be lying if I said I’ve lived a perfect life since then. I just now got back in the water after finding excuses for five months not to go to the pool in the mornings: Memo to everyone: there are NO excuses for not going. I’ve been back in for a month and feel 100 percent better and happier already.
Every few months, I call my high school coach, Ed Brennan, mostly to check in on him but also to thank him. He was the one who talked me into giving up my budding basketball career as a 5-foot-4 inch high school freshman in order to try out for his swimming team.
“You’re naturally buoyant,” he said. “If you work at it, swimming can get you into college. You’re a short, white kid. You aren’t going to college on a basketball scholarship.”
He was right. Swimming got me into college. And, 32 years after I graduated, swimming kept me alive.
If not for swimming, I might have left Danny and Brigid without a father. If not for swimming, I wouldn’t have had the chance to marry Christine or to be Jane’s father.
Every once in a while, when I get mad at what’s going on in the world, I look around and realize how amazingly lucky I am to still be here to GET mad.
I got to write, “The Legends Club” and “The First Major,” and I just spent a great winter researching a book that will be called, “The Back Roads To March,” about players, coaches and teams that aren’t Zion Williamson or any of the glamour players or teams.
I even got to hear Mike Krzyzewski’s reaction to the book: “That’s a great idea,” he said. “You won’t have to interview me.”
I’m about to leave to watch Jane’s first junior golf tournament of the summer. I couldn’t be happier about that.
I swam this morning. I’m still slow as hell, but getting better. I got out of the water and gave thanks to Ed Brennan, to Joe Vassallo, to Lowell Satler and, of course, to Steve Boyce. Even if he is a f---- Maryland guy.
John Feinstein’s most recent book is, “The Prodigy,” the fictional story of a 17-year-old with a chance to win the Masters all the while trying to hold off agents, apparel reps and his won father—all of whom want to turn him into a human ATM machine ala Earl Woods and Tiger. His latest non-fiction book is, “Quarterback—Inside the Most Important Position in Professional Sports.” His website is JFeinsteinbooks.com