A heart attack and triple bypass surgery couldn't stop Craig Gaumer from keeping a promise to his daughter.
by The Iowa Clinic on Thursday, April 25, 2019
Craig Gaumer was not a runner. The former collegiate swimmer was always more comfortable in a swim cap than in sneakers. His daughter, however, is a distance runner active in both cross country and track and field.
Despite their differences in athletic pursuits, the father and daughter made an unlikely pact to do something fun together before her high school graduation.
"I got the idea of doing The Goofy Challenge. It's a Walt Disney World event," Gaumer says. "You run a half marathon at pace on Saturday and you get a Donald Duck medal. You run a full marathon within a certain time on Sunday and you get a Mickey Mouse Medal. If you complete both of those in back-to-back days, you get a Goofy medal because you've got to be goofy to run that much."
Gaumer proposed the idea to his daughter and she accepted the challenge. Now, all he had to do was get in shape so he could hold up his end of the deal.
Training gets off to a bumpy start.
With no background in running, Gaumer decided to gradually work his way into marathon training. On January 29, 2018, about a year out from the race, he got started on his home treadmill.
"I was on it for about 40 minutes that morning. It was my first morning really trying to get in shape," he says. "I walked some, I ran some. I didn't really overdo it. I was well aware I needed to get in shape and that I had 12 months to do it."
At work a few hours later, he felt a twinge in his left shoulder. This was nothing new. He'd been dealing with flare-ups from a college swimming injury off and on since the 1980s. But these twinges felt different. The pain started radiating down his arm. Gaumer started to worry.
"I knew you take aspirin if you have a heart attack. So I talked to people in my office to see if they had any aspirin because it was on the left side of my body," he says. "Nobody had any aspirin."
Gaumer felt okay otherwise. Could it really be a heart attack? He called his wife, Lynn, for a second opinion. She assumed he was calling about someone else and described the symptoms.
His suspicions confirmed, Gaumer told Lynn that he thought he was having a heart attack and was going to get it checked out.
"That's how I ended up in the hospital. I had no symptoms before that. I wasn't a drinker. I wasn't a smoker. I had some extra weight. My cholesterol was a little high, but not high enough to be on medication," he says. "So I had no clue that anything was going on until the shoulder pain that morning."
A quick run to the hospital leads to a longer-than-expected stay.
Gaumer drove himself to the emergency room at Iowa Methodist Medical Center in Des Moines. His heart was beating erratically, but there were no other signs to suggest he was having a heart attack. Doses of nitroglycerin and baby aspirin resolved his shoulder pain. His symptoms were gone. He had no personal or family history of heart issues. Doctors were still not sure what had happened and continued to monitor his heart.
"While I made it to the hospital at nine in the morning, it wasn't until that night that my troponin levels spiked and they found that I did, in fact, have a heart attack," Gaumer says.
An echocardiogram provided good news though — his heart hadn't suffered any damage. The good news was short-lived. While he was symptom-free, Gaumer's troponin levels were still rising, suggesting there was a heart problem and it was not getting better.
Doctors ordered an angiogram to diagnose the problem. Based on his age, health history and symptoms, they thought stents were the likeliest scenario. Gaumer would be in and out of the procedure in an hour.
"They came out about 10 to 15 minutes after they started the procedure to let my wife know that in the left side of my heart, the arteries were 90 percent blocked," he says. "There was just too much blockage to do stents so I needed bypass surgery. That was kind of a shock."
"My wife thought, ‘15 minutes, that's great! His heart's fine, he doesn't need stents and we're going home.' It was the exact opposite."
Heart surgery halts his running plans.
What Gaumer thought was just some nagging shoulder pain on Monday led to a triple bypass on Thursday. He was sure his running days were over. He couldn't get through one light run. Even if he was able to run again, recovery from coronary bypass surgery takes 18 months.
Gaumer thought the dream of completing the Goofy Challenge with his daughter was gone. But a pre-surgery consultation with Christopher Komanapalli, MD, cardiothoracic surgeon at The Iowa Clinic restored his hopes.
"I told Dr. Komanapalli what I was doing that morning, that I was training for the Goofy Challenge," Gaumer says. "I said, ‘I guess that's over.' Dr. Komanapalli said, ‘Oh, no. You can still do that.'"
Dr. Komanapalli removed a vein from Gaumer's right leg and used it at three different locations in his heart to reroute the flow of blood around the blocked arteries. Instead of wiring the open sternum back together, he put in a titanium plate so Gaumer could engage in more athletic activities.
"Talking to Dr. Komanapalli, he was very educational but very blunt. When I asked him what my long-term prognosis was, he said that depended on me. He had patients that were back for a second bypass six months later because they hadn't done the things they were supposed to do to have a heart-healthy lifestyle. I was pretty determined not to be one of those people," Gaumer says.
The Goofy Challenge was still on.
The magic of medicine opens the door to the magic of Disney.
In May 2018, Gaumer was cleared to run. He could start training for the Goofy Challenge.
"In February, March and April, I couldn't run. But they wanted me to walk for half an hour every day, so I did that in preparation — not only for heart health," he says. "When May started, I walked/ran. I had to lay down a base. It was a slow process, but steady."
By August, Gaumer was ready to start his official training program, which included runs up to 20 miles long. Then on January 13, 2019, less than a year after a heart attack and triple bypass surgery, he was lined up with Lynn, his daughter and 20,000 other runners at Walt Disney World Marathon Weekend.
"My wife and I did the runs together both days. My daughter, who's in better shape, frolicked with us and ahead of us. All three of us finished together," Gaumer says.
The Gaumers kept the pace needed to earn the Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse and Goofy medals. Craig even had enough time to stop for a picture with Mr. Incredible two miles away from the marathon finish line.
With three running medals under his belt, Gaumer now has plans to add more. Running has helped him stay active, hit his weight loss goals and maintain a healthy heart.
"I need to have something I'm training for. Some objective, some goal. It doesn't mean I have to win anything or be faster. I just need to go and try for a finisher's medal, just make sure I make it," he says.
"People ask me why I do it. I say, ‘Some people do it to be fast. Some people do it for personal records. With what happened to me, I'm literally running for my life.'"