The News Desk is a collection of news, notes and breaking items affecting the Fredericksburg community.
From heart surgery to the top of Stony Man in 52 days
BY JIM HALL
Hikers who reach the top of Stony Man Mountain are rewarded with one of the best views in Shenandoah National Park. When Steve McInnis completed the climb, however, he found more than a great vista. He realized that his damaged heart was whole again.
“It did a lot for my psyche,” McInnis said.
There were many times earlier in his life when McInnis could not have climbed the 4,000-foot mountain in Madison County. He had spent almost half his 52 years dealing with heart problems, including an irregular rhythm and a defective valve.
These problems were a family heritage, McInnis said. His mother had valve-replacement surgery identical to the type he had this year. And his grandfather on his father’s side had a pacemaker implanted in 1969. McInnis has had two pacemakers.
“I got hit by both sides” of the family, he said.
More than 80 million Americans have some form of heart disease, with most being 60 and older, according to the American Heart Association.
McInnis was among the younger group. He was 30 when he started getting dizzy from physical exertion. The episodes got closer together and more severe. Finally, while serving with the Culpeper Volunteer Rescue Squad, he discovered the problem. At the time, he was a volunteer cardiac tech with the rescue squad and a resident of Culpeper.
One night while on duty, he did not feel well, so he climbed into the back of the ambulance and hooked himself to the Lifepak, the portable defibrillator and heart monitor found in many ambulances. He connected the machine’s three leads to his chest. When the Lifepak read his heart’s electrical activity, McInnis stared at its printout.
“Wow, that’s not supposed to be there,” he said.
The machine had found an arrhythmia, or abnormal rhythm. It also revealed that his heart was beating 40 times a minute, slower than the normal range of 60 to 100 beats per minute.
Soon McInnis was a patient in his own ambulance, on his way to Culpeper Regional Hospital. From there, he went to Martha Jefferson Hospital in Charlottesville, where he got his first pacemaker. The small device, implanted in his upper chest, kept his heart beating at a normal rate and rhythm. He got a second pacemaker 11 years later, when the battery in the first one wore out.
A LEAKY VALVE
However, in recent years, even with the pacemaker, the instances of fatigue and dizziness returned.
“I was starting to get very winded,” he said. “At the end, I’d walk to the end of my driveway and back, and I’d be out of breath.”
At first, McInnis wondered if his pacemaker was working properly. Tests indicated that it was. However, other tests showed that he had a second, unrelated heart problem. His aortic valve was leaking.
Blood travels from the heart through the valve to the aorta and the rest of the body. The valves in most people have three leaflets, which open and close when the blood leaves. McInnis’ was different.
“He was born with two leaflets,” said Dr. Alex Na, heart surgeon at Mary Washington Hospital.
As these patients get older, the leaflets may not work as well. Blood leaks back into the heart, causing it to work harder.
To fix the problem, Na opened McInnis’ chest, removed the defective valve and replaced it with a mechanical one. It was a procedure that’s performed an average of twice a week at the Fredericksburg hospital.
MEETING A CHALLENGE
McInnis spent three days in March in the hospital, then went home to begin his recovery—and to meet the challenge posed by his friend Mark Ford.
“I basically just threw down a comment, and he picked it up and ran with it,” Ford said.
Ford is a physician’s assistant in Fredericksburg and a volunteer paramedic with McInnis on the Lake of the Woods Volunteer Rescue Squad. Ford suggested that McInnis join him for a hike in the mountains of Shenandoah National Park. McInnis adopted the idea as one of the goals of his recovery.
“I didn’t realize how important it was for him,” Ford said.
McInnis began training for the hike by walking the streets in his neighborhood. Fifty-two days after his surgery, on May 16, he, Ford and two others began their ascent of Stony Man. Ford had planned the hike so they could get help quickly if McInnis struggled.
“We didn’t baby him, but we kept a pretty sharp eye on him,” Ford said.
The group spent four hours on the mountain. McInnis said he had to stop on the inclines to catch his breath, but he recovered quickly.
“He did great,” Ford said. “He went right on up like the rest of us.”
McInnis said completing the climb was good for his confidence.
“Now I can go out and do the normal things a person would do without thinking,” he said.
McInnis has since returned to his job as a program manager with a defense contractor in Northern Virginia. He and his wife, Debbie, live in Orange County.
He and Ford did a second hike in the national park on June 21 at Mary’s Rock. They plan to do others.
“We’re trying to do one a month,” McInnis said.
Jim Hall: 540/374-5433