Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of stories running on Tuesdays in February for American Heart Month of local residents sharing their heart stories.
NELSON TOWNSHIP — Less than three months after basketball referee Daniel Rock underwent a complicated triple bypass surgery, he was running the hardwood again, whistle in hand, calling a high school game.
“It’s been really wonderful that it went this quickly,” Rock, 52, of Nelson Township, just west of Southington, said. “People were telling me it will be a year before you can do stuff again. That’s not the case.”
He attributes his rapid recovery to getting serious about cardiac rehab. Rock began working out Nov. 2 at the Trumbull Regional Medical Center’s Cardiac Rehabilitation Program in Warren.
“I basically crawled in there and ran out,” he said. “I’m still working out (at home), getting stronger every day.”
“YOU HAD A HEART ATTACK”
At a toned and athletic 6-foot-2, 180 pounds, Rock did not fit the profile of a cardiac risk.
Heart disease was prevalent in his dad’s family, so he took steps to make sure it didn’t hit him. He worked out, ate well, didn’t smoke and avoided all those things doctors tell people not to do. He was always involved in sports with his three kids, two of whom now play college volleyball. It short, he did everything right.
“The things you do to your body now will catch up with you. I did none of that stuff and heredity caught me,” he said.
In September, Rock spent a week hiking a section of the Appalachian Trail. He was troubled by shortness of breath. He figured the cause was treatment he was receiving for a rare form of leukemia that developed a year and a half ago.
He reported it to his oncologist during his latest chemotherapy treatments.
“They did a CT scan. They sent me for an enzyme test.” Then he went home. Until the cardiac enzyme results came on the doctor’s screen.
“His nurse called me and said, ‘Can someone drive you to the emergency room?’ I had had a heart attack,” Rock said. “They admitted me. Three of four of my valves were blocked. They said, ‘You’re lucky you didn’t die on the trail.’
“It really was a shock.”
That was on Oct. 9. On Oct. 13, Rock underwent a triple bypass, plus surgeons had to go back in that night when one of the fixes failed.
This all happened in the middle of a new round of chemotherapy, “So I had it bad on both ends.
“I woke up to a whole new world,” he said. “I had to use a walker.”
He remembers the “cough pillow” given to bypass patients to squeeze against their chests to help prevent damage to healing bones when they cough. Plus, it hurt. “Sneezes were hell on earth.”
CRAWLING TO REHAB
The first day of cardiac rehab at Trumbull Regional Medical Center, Rock’s wife dropped him off at the door, and he struggled into the building using his walker.
The exercise equipment filled him with trepidation.
“I was scared to work a little bit. Am I going to have another heart attack?
“When I started there, there was a clicking sensation” in my chest where surgeons separated bones to get to the heart, he said. “They told me that’s supposed to happen” while bones healed.
All of the staff are certified by the American College of Sports Medicine as clinical exercise physiologists. Treatment plans are designed around individual risk factor and exercise assessments aimed at reducing the chance of further heart events and improving physical fitness, according to the hospital.
So with monitors attached and exercise physiologists keeping close supervision, Rock said he plunged into rehabilitation with focused determination. Whenever a new exercise was suggested, Rock gave it a go.
“I told myself I’m never going to tell them no,” he said. In 20 years, he had never missed a basketball season as a referee, and he sure didn’t plan to miss this year.
“My goal was to get back on my feet right away,” he said. “I worked as hard with that as anything athletic in my life.”
He showed up at 7 a.m. three days a week.
“In four weeks, I went from barely walking to light jogging,” he said. “I reffed my first basketball game a couple of weeks ago.”
He hadn’t planned on coming back until sometime this month, but there was ref shortage for a Jan. 8 game at Crestwood High School in Mantua. Rock decided to give it a try even though he didn’t think he was ready. It went so well that he’s refereed a couple more basketball games since.
He used to ref five to six times a week. Now it’s a “very slight hobby” at once a week.
And he’s back to his full-time job as purchasing director at Hodell-Natco Industries in Cleveland, a wholesale distributor of fasteners and chain.
Symptoms of heart attacks vary. Some people don’t realize they are having a cardiac event because they think it’s only in the chest where they should feel something. Rock said people should pay attention to any irregularities.
“The biggest thing is listen to your body,” Rock said. “Listen to your body. Watch what you eat. If you smoke, stop smoking. The things you do to your body now will catch up with you.”
And, he said, anyone who becomes a heart patient definitely should go through cardiac rehab.
“The benefits of rehab — you heal quick,” he said.