ORANGE PARK, Fla – It's National Heart Awareness month. Doctors want to remind you why you should follow your doctor's orders. If one man had ignored his follow-up appointments, he likely would have died
Gary Cooke was only 53 years and he knew he had a heart murmur but he didn't know about the ticking time bomb that would soon threaten to take his life. He's also not your typical guy in his 50s.
"I can drop down and give you 50 pushups, go for a 10 mile run and play music until 1:30 in the morning," says Cooke.
He was doing all of that and more until one day he just couldn't.
"It scared me to death. I just went over the feeling of the wind just coming out of me. I think I went through the whole cycle of grief saying, 'You got to be kidding me, right? I'm the guy who needs open heart surgery'" says Cooke.
He had recently learned of his bicuspid aortic valve and that diagnosis required periodic tests. He had passed them all until the doctor sounded the alarm.
"Suddenly he wasn't fine and he started running all these tests and having me do things and I was like, 'I wonder why he's doing this,?'" says Cooke.
One of his valves failed and it was deadly. Cooke was admitted to the hospital for emergency surgery. But following doctor's orders likely saved his life.
"It's amazing how healthy you can feel and seem and not know if there's something underlying that needs to be addressed because that's what it sounds like. Running marathons and having critical stenosis from a bad aortic valve, those things don't go hand-in-hand but when you're young, you push yourself and young people don't always seem to look as sick as they can be underneath," says Moradi.
Dr. Nick Moradi with Orange Park Medical Center said any patient follow-up care is crucial, especially when it comes to matters of the heart. Gary came back from surgery better than before. He ran his fastest marathon time ever just eight short months after going under the knife.
"It's not your father's open heart surgery. It's not the same. Things have changed in the recovery techniques, the cardiac rehab and all the things that they do for you now," says Moradi.
Gary's heart now stays focused on others. He's intent on educating and comforting people who are facing the same shock that he did when his life was on the line. He went into his old hospital room during the interview and saw a man who's facing the similar surgery.
"It's like, 'Hey if you can do it, then I can do it too.' Sorry, to see that guy sitting in my room, it's not my room, but the very room that I was in. He looked to be about my age and it really touched me because I know what that guy feels like," says Cooke.
He also wrote a book entitled "If I can make it you can too" and he means it with every step he takes.
"I'm completely asymptomatic in the gym all the time and I feel good. I feel really good," says Cooke.
He's done work with OPMC to provide videos to share his story. He's hoping to educate people so they know what to expect with open heart surgery.