After a mid-heart attack, the triathlon champion returns to the starting line

For Timothy O’Donnell, he refused for hours in the emergency room of a South Florida hospital late at night on March 13, 2021, when a traumatologist called the intensive care unit and told him to stay close.

“I thought, ‘Oh, man, are you going to die here?’ “That’s where the athlete’s thinking started. Just get rid of the negative minds and focus on survival.”

And yet, a few hours earlier, that thought had cost him almost his life. He launched a series of events that reflected the boundaries of a rigid mentality that included endurance sports, sometimes with deadly consequences.

At about 20 miles on the bike and 11 miles on the Miami Challenge Triathlon, the 62-mile Championships, O’Donnell struggled with severe chest tightness and pain, causing his left arm to drop when he competed with some. Among the best triathletes in the world.

The approach that made him so ignorant of the pain kept him moving forward when he lost his way on the bike and got off the bike one lap earlier. This thinking existed when he went for the 11-mile jog, the last segment, even though he was having trouble breathing and felt as if he had an asthma attack.

O’Donnell, 41, who is from Boulder in the colony, made the mistake that many seemingly healthy middle-aged men make every year, often with disastrous consequences. He simply could not bear to think that someone like him could have a heart attack, not to mention the widow’s being called because of its severity and frequency among unsuspecting middle-aged men who are formulaic and have no idea they might be at risk.

“This is not an uncommon story,” said Aaron Bagish, an O’Donnell cardiologist and director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Clinic, which provides comprehensive cardiovascular care for athletes. “You can exercise and stay healthy and reduce your risk, but none of the exercises give you complete immunity from heart disease.”

After a year of rehabilitation and medical research and many spirits and long conversations with his wife, three-time Ironman world champion Mirinda Carrefres, O’Donnell is ready for a serious competition again.

He had planned to return to racing form two weeks ago with the St. Anthony Triathlon in St. Petersburg, Florida, but the cold forced him to leave. Now his return will begin in earnest this weekend in Chattanooga, Tenn., At the Ironman 70.3 North American Championships, followed by the Ironman Continental Championships in Des Moines in June.

“The idea is to return to Konya,” O’Donnell said, referring to the Ironman World Championships in Kailua-Konya, Hawaii in October.

Tough endurance tests more than a year after an almost fatal cardiac event may sound thoughtless, and O’Donnell and Carrefour, who have two young children, were initially suspicious. They agreed that if there was any chance he would continue racing for his heart health, he would leave.

“His racing career was not on our radar,” Carrefour said as he passed a 16-month-old baby recently. “We tried to keep him healthy so that he could live a long and healthy life.”

Heart attacks like O’Donnell ‘s occur when a piece of plaque that has accumulated on the inner membrane of an artery breaks down and causes a blockage that prevents blood from flowing properly into the heart.

After O’Donnell learned that he had a genetic predisposition to heart disease, namely the accumulation of plaque on the walls of arteries, a condition that is difficult for doctors to diagnose.

Doctors used a common procedure to repair O’Donnell’s left anterior descending artery with a stent – a reticular coil that widens the artery – then continued to treat it with medication that made it safer to return to the race than it looks, Bagish said, his doctor said.

During the O’Donnell race, his body worked so hard to pump blood that it was able to move blood through the blood clot. He finished 11th in 2 hours 44 minutes 56 seconds but then failed to stand on his feet. He called the primary care physician from the recovery zone and told him about the tightness and pain in his chest that had struck his arm during the race. The doctor told her to take aspirin to stop the clot and go to the ambulance department where she saw that the traumatologist had called the resuscitation team.

“At the moment in the hospital, I finally got him,” he said. “As, wow, this is actually happening.”

A week after the heart attack, O’Donnell sat down on the treadmill for a stress test and was soon released for light aerobic exercise.

After O’Donnell, Carrefour and his doctors felt comfortable with his general fitness, they resumed discussing the race, including which medications he could stop because they could interrupt his work.

The mental challenges were more challenging, especially for those with an analytical inclination, such as O’Donnell, who graduated from the United States Naval Academy with a degree in Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering. Doctors have told him whether this heart attack was going to compete in triathlon or not, but he still thinks about how he lost his wife and children.

Carrefour had his moments as well. Early in O’Donnell’s recovery, when Carrefour went to bed with the children, he told him he was going to climb the treadmill. He woke up two hours later and heard the TV explode and the treadmill was still working. He thought O’Donnell still couldn’t train and he should have fallen. Fearing worse, he entered the room. It turned out that he started training later than planned.

This year they participated in a short course at the Florida Triathlon Couples. He watched him go into the water and thought: Should he be there?

“I had a terrible race,” Carrefour said. “I was emotionally very empty.”

They take solace in science, the words of doctors and math, who say his chances of another heart attack have been substantially reduced as one of the main potential causes has been identified.

“Tim will hurt himself more during a bad bike accident than during another coronary event,” Bagis said.

This does not mean that he will not have another heart attack. Whatever Odone looks like, he has heart disease. The absurd form presumably saved his life after he ignored the symptoms. He will no longer do so, but former Navy officers often do not live their lives in Bubble Wrap, and he knows the only alternative is to accept uncertainty.

“There are always variables you can not control,” he said.

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