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Climbing Mountain is Peak of Heart Patient’s Recovery

John Frank achieved a major life goal this summer when he completed the John Muir Trail in California, including reaching the highest peak in the lower 48 states at the trail’s southern end, 14,500-foot Mount Whitney.

John first tried to complete this feat with his son Caleb, a fourth-year medical student, in the summer of 2018. The 57-year-old Akron, Ohio, resident has had heart problems in the past, getting his fourth stent in February of that year, but he felt well and trained hard from March through June. The trip started off well but by day four, John was faltering. Realizing he wasn’t going to be able to finish, he and his son left the trail and rented a car to drive up the scenic Pacific Highway and make the best of their time in California together.

However, John did not let this experience deter him. He came home vowing to get in even better shape and trained hard for a sprint triathlon in December 2018. Unfortunately, a couple months before the event, he again felt like he’d hit another wall. One day, he couldn’t run 200 meters. The next day, he struggled to swim.

He went to see David Hedrick, MD, PhD, at Cleveland Clinic Akron General, who ordered a stress test that John passed easily. However, further testing via catheter showed he had a completely blocked artery in his heart.

John Frank and climbers on top of Mount Whitney.
John (second from end on right) and fellow climbers, after climbing Mount Whitney. (Courtesy: John Frank)

“All my physical training up to that point probably saved my life because my body developed collateral blood vessels over time that compensated for the blocked artery,” John says.

He wasn’t a candidate for a stent procedure since he already had four, so he underwent coronary artery bypass grafting (CABG), an open procedure that restored normal blood flow to his heart.

“John had an extensive history of premature coronary artery disease and had undergone stenting in blocked coronary arteries in the past with good results. For some, however, it is a progressive disease,” says Joseph Lahorra, MD, the cardiothoracic surgeon who performed John’s surgery. “John’s blockages had progressed to the point where he needed a more definitive long-term fix to maintain the blood supply to his heart,” adds. Dr. Lahorra. The first few weeks of recovery were challenging but John bounced back quickly. He pushed his cardiac rehab therapists to let him proceed at a faster pace, and was back to running about 10 weeks after surgery.

By July 2019, he felt well enough to backpack the Teton Crest Trail over four days. He continued to work out regularly and lose weight. He also ran a 10k that December. The whole time he kept his eyes on the goal that eluded him two years earlier, and by the time summer 2020 arrived, he was thrilled when he and his son were able to complete the John Muir Trail and crest Mount Whitney on July 18.

John Frank remains active, even after undergoing cardiac bypass surgery at Cleveland Clinic. John continues staying active and is looking for his next challenge. (Courtesy: John Frank)

“In my mind, I dreamed about this from February 2018 until the day it actually happened, and the photo that was taken about 30 seconds after we reached the summit is exactly what I pictured. It is my favorite photo of all time,” says John.

“The fact that he had always taken care of himself and exercised regularly really sped up his recovery,” says Dr. Lahorra. “Our whole team is thrilled he could return to complete the John Muir climb after bypass surgery. He surmounted a serious heart problem to achieve something spectacular and memorable.”

John was initially leery of hiking during the COVID-19 pandemic but says he and his son felt amazingly safe on the trail. “In 2018, we would usually see up to 50 people a day out there but we saw maybe 5 to 10 per day this time,” he recalls.

Buoyed by the success of this 14-day trip, John is looking forward to his next challenge. John says, “Perhaps a section of the 468-mile Colorado Crest Trail in the summer of 2021 and a half-marathon sometime during the year.”

Related Institutes: Heart, Vascular & Thoracic Institute (Miller Family)
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