The Journey Begins: Man Wins Battle Against Heart Disease, Plans to Run Marathon

Confucius said the journey of a thousand miles begins with one single step. I began my journey on May 17, 2005.

Two weeks before, I had been diagnosed with a near-fatal heart condition. My aortic valve was shutting down and, without surgery, death was imminent.

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So there I was, a news radio anchor and reporter, splayed out on a gurney with an assortment of tubes and wires protruding from various and sundry portions of my body, wondering if I would live to see another day. There was a moment, just before I was wheeled into the operating room, when I was all alone. I remember thinking, "Boy, I sure could use a vacation."

The surgeons popped me open like a Thanksgiving turkey, turned off my heart, and installed a brand new aortic heart valve with the efficiency of a team of mechanics at the local Jiffy Lube. The old valve was cut out and a new valve, about the size of a Susan B. Anthony dollar coin, was sewn into place. During the five-hour procedure, I was kept alive by machines doing the work normally reserved for my heart and lungs.

I was lucky to be alive, that’s what my doctor said. The Starnes family gene pool and my proclivity to fried chicken had almost sent me to an early grave. I was 37-years-old, weighed almost 300 pounds, and I had just survived open heart surgery. My doctor suggested I needed to radically reevaluate my life. And he was absolutely right.

I love food —- never met an all-you-can-eat buffet that I didn’t like. I grew up in the South, where my mother managed to fry the entire food pyramid. I like my tea sweet, my chicken fried and my biscuits buttered. It’s just the way things are done in Dixie. But years of good-eating had put me in a precarious situation. My doctor told me I had been given a second chance at life. It was my job to make sure I didn’t screw it up.

About 24 hours after surgery, a physical therapist walked into my hospital room. He told me it was time to get out of bed. I told him he was nuts. After much cajoling (and a few choice words on my part), I managed to take what would become my very first step on the journey. It was all I could muster before collapsing back into the bed. I was convinced that my life was officially over. But my therapist smiled and reassured me that I had just overcome the most difficult obstacle on my road to recovery —- I had taken the first step.

I’m not sure why, but for the first time in two weeks, I smiled. "You know," he said, "Before long, you’ll be running a marathon." For some reason, I absolutely, positively believed every word he said.

"That’s it," I said to myself. "I’m going to run a marathon." Keep in mind, I was in a drug-induced fog. I also thought I could fly. Nevertheless, on that day in Room 419 of Sutter Memorial Hospital, I made a covenant —- to lose weight, to start exercising , and to run the New York City Marathon.

They’ve been running marathons in New York City since 1970. The race course —- 26.2 miles. Only 55 runners crossed the finish line in that inaugural race. Thirty seven years later, more than 37,000 runners are expected to lace up their shoes and pound the pavement. And on November 4, more than two years after my heart surgery, I’ll be one of those runners — hopefully crossing the finish line.

It’s a race that pushes men and women to the breaking point. Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong said the marathon is one of the most difficult races in the world of sports. So if it’s hard for Lance, you can imagine what it must be like for somebody like me —- a novice, overweight runner with an artificial heart valve. I must be nuts.

The New York City Marathon is an incredible race. It‘s an urban course and the scenery is simply breathtaking. I’ll start the day on Staten Island, the first mile of the course an uphill climb over the Verrazzano Bridge. From there, it’s a race through the city’s five boroughs —- places like Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx. More than two million people will be there to cheer us on.

Total strangers will shout our names and offer words of encouragement. In some neighborhoods, marching bands will lift our spirits with live music. And at each mile, volunteers will offer us fresh water. It’s a mile by mile battle of the mind and the body.

I’ve been training for this race for nearly six months. I’ve run in the rain, snow and sweltering humidity. I’ve battled through bruised heels and aching knees to finish two half-marathons, along with countless four- and five-mile runs. I believe I’m prepared for the incredibly difficult challenge that awaits me on November 4th, but there are plenty of unknowns. I’ve been taught to respect the course and to listen to my body. To do otherwise, could be disastrous and deadly. The nation learned that lesson a few weeks ago in Chicago.

It will be especially difficult for me. I’ve got to make sure that I’m adequately hydrated along the way. I’ll briefly stop to get my blood pressure checked and I’ll have to be extra careful not to fall. I have to take a blood thinning medicine because of my heart valve. Without it, blood would clot around the artificial valve and I could have a stroke. The medicine thins my blood — so the smallest scrape or cut could land me in an emergency room instead of the finish line.

So how does a guy survive open heart surgery, lose more than a hundred pounds and run a marathon? And better yet, why would a guy who survived open heart surgery even consider running anywhere?

Great questions —- and over the next few weeks I hope you will join me on a journey to discover the answers. And who knows, you might just discover something about yourself along the way.

Todd Starnes is a network news anchor for Fox News Radio