Eric Stuart knew something was wrong when he was on a rowing machine at the gym, and within six minutes of what is normally a much longer exercise, he was drenched in sweat and struggled to catch his breath.
He really knew something was wrong when a few days later, on a simple walk through Pontiff Park, he developed the same symptoms. So Stuart, the race director for the Crescent City Classic and one of south Louisiana’s most well-known fitness advocates, consulted with a cardiologist.
Turns out, there was something wrong — seriously wrong.
Stuart and his physicians had used prescription medication to effectively treat his mitral valve prolapse for more than 20 years. But now, two chords that open and close the heart valve had ruptured, and the leaflet allowing proper blood flow through the heart was deteriorated. Blood essentially was back-flowing into his heart a dangerous rate. He felt sick; like he had pneumonia.
The doctor told Stuart, 59, that he would have to have surgery within 60 days. If he didn’t, he faced possible enlargement of the heart, and even congestive heart failure.
There really was no other option, even for Stuart, who had no blockage in any of his arteries and otherwise was in perfect health.
So on Thursday, Stuart will undergo surgery at Ochsner Medical Center. Dr. Eugene Parrino (“a fabulous physician,” Stuart said,) will perform the surgery. Both are hoping that the valve can be repaired. If not, Stuart will undergo heart tissue replacement, rather than receive an artificial valve.
The procedure could put Stuart out of commission anywhere from four weeks to three months, depending on what actually takes place in surgery Thursday.
Stuart said he’s “scared,” but knows he’s in good hands. Having surgery, after all, was an easy choice, given the alternatives.
“This has taken my mind off of it all,” he said, referring to the Allstate Sugar Bowl Crescent City Fall Classic held last Saturday in City Park. “After this (race) is over, it’s going to be harder. I don’t sleep. (Worrying about the heart condition) keeps me awake. I know I’ll be fine, but there’s a lot on my mind, for sure.”
Illness is nothing new to Stuart — surprising perhaps, given the way he takes care of his body. Since a decorated running career (which included his college days running for LSU,) Stuart has undergone a myriad of ailments. He’s had nearly half a dozen knee surgeries, and he’s had a rotator cuff go bad. He battled anemia last year, and 30 years ago, he had a brain tumor removed that required approximately 250 stiches in his head.
“They took the backside of my head out,” he said, pointing to the area where he had surgery many years ago. “I lost hearing in my left ear.”
Still, with those battles behind him, Stuart worries about the heart. The organ’s health is, of course, vital to him keeping up with his fitness routines, as well as managing one of the most-engaging 10-kilometer races on the planet.
“He’s had several major health issues even though he’s probably the ‘healthiest’ person you know,” said Stuart’s wife, Terry. “The surgeon is supposed to be wonderful, but (Eric) has been down...I think he’s worried about the breaking (open) of the chest and the recovery. He’s beaten everything else, but he’s never beaten this before. It’s new to him.”
Stuart remains confident in a full recovery, and has numbers to prove why he should be. Odds on being able to repair the valve are 95 percent. If he’s in the small minority, then the doctor will try tissue replacement (though that may mean Stuart would be back in surgery in a decade or so.)
Either way, Stuart seems resilient.
“I’m going to be fine,” Stuart said. “Like my wife says, we just have to fix another part of you.”
What Stuart is not fretting over is the state of the Crescent City Classic or the CCC Foundation; which manages several local road races each year while raising money for area non-profits in the name of fitness.
The CCC’s Celebration in the Oaks Run/Walk is scheduled for Dec. 13, and is in the capable hands of CCC event manager Laine Thomas. The Classic, itself, is scheduled for April 4, 2015. Longtime local track fixture John Boyer also is providing assistance.
True to his “pro-active” personality, Stuart said he’ll be back at work long before spring and the CCC.
“The organization is in place,” he said. “Laine had done a lot of the stuff I haven’t done on the registration side, and I’ve shown her some of what I do. The non-profit foundation has filled in the gaps, too. Look, those guys on the race crew, they work every single race with me. They know exactly what to do. The organization is as healthy as it’s been in years.
“But we can’t rest on our laurels from last year,” Stuart added. “There are improvements to be made. And we will get them done.”