How Tennis Saved My Life

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In the summer of 2013, a business associate came to my office and I asked him how he stayed so fit at the age of 70. He mentioned that he exercised regularly and he used to play tennis with his brother-in-law, but recently gave it up because his brother-in-law’s knees no longer allowed him to play. I asked, half-joking, if he would teach me. The following spring at the age of 50, I called him and he welcomed the opportunity to get back on the court and teach me.

As it turned out, I really liked the game.

We have now been playing for the last two summers a couple of times per week, and I even started taking lessons. My wife and I even went on a tennis weekend to Westhampton Beach, N.Y., and that weekend, we were strolling down the street and I saw someone who looked familiar. I asked him where I knew him from, and he shook my hand and said, "You know me from tennis … my name is Nick Bollettieri.”

At this point, it was clear that I had been bitten by the tennis bug. Anyway, towards the end of last summer, I began having a lot of indigestion while playing tennis. I figured that I was eating too close to playing or having large meals before matches, so I started eating smaller meals and even began substituting protein drinks for meals. But I realized that I was doing the same thing I was doing the year before when I wasn’t experiencing this indigestion issue.

Because tennis was such a part of my life, my wife told me that I wasn’t allowed to play until I called a doctor, so I obliged. I called my gastroenterologist and he strongly suggested I go see a cardiologist. For some reason, I was in denial that it was my heart because I assumed I wouldn't be able to run around and play tennis if it was my heart. After my EKG, the cardiologist looked at it and told me it was my heart.

Now we started talking about heart stents. The cardiologist sent me for an echo cardiogram that same visit and called me that night to tell me that I did not have any heart muscle damage and to schedule a nuclear stress test. At the conclusion of the test, we spoke with the doctor and she directed me to a cath lab.

When it was all said and done, it turned out that my LAD artery, which I later learned is called the "Widow Maker,” was 98 percent blocked. If it had become 100 percent blocked, one of two things would have happened: I either would have had a fatal heart attack or wouldn't have been able to get away with stents and would have required bypass surgery.

I went home the next morning, the day before Thanksgiving, with a lot to be thankful for. I am still really thankful and it has changed my life. Someone said to me that it sounded like a scary situation, but in reality, looking back, the scary part was all of the signs I ignored that now appear to have been obvious. 

Two weeks later, I was playing tennis again. Now I play at least three times per week, and I go to the gym or use the treadmill in my house a couple of times per week. I actually installed a desk shelf on my treadmill so I can talk on the phone, walk on the treadmill and be on my laptop at the same time. I still cannot believe how great I feel! Between dieting, exercise and tennis, I've lost 30 pounds and my cholesterol numbers are in line for the first time.

I played tennis indoors all winter long and made many new tennis friends. I have been going to tennis parties, playing in tournaments and taking lessons. I even talked my wife into joining a tennis country club this summer! The best time to ask for these things is when you are on your back after a life-altering heart procedure with some tubes hanging out of you!

I spent 30 years sitting in front of a computer most of the time. On the weekends, I would take our camper out and do a little hiking, but it was clearly not enough to prevent coronary heart disease. Now I schedule my exercise as if it is just as important as any business appointment, as opposed to exercising only if I have the time.

Developing a love for tennis and the threat of not being able to play the sport directed me to the warning signs of my health, so the next time you are feeling guilty about making time to play tennis or exercise, remember this story and how tennis saved my life.