Of the Baker City Herald

Im a sucker for a happy ending. Especially if it happens to me.

One such ending, of sorts, came true for me Jan. 8 in Boise when I found out I probably wont have to have by-pass heart surgery.

Now, I know hundreds of people have heart surgery every year, and theres still an outside chance that down the road I will have to also.

But, after two years of trying to do the right things, the news from my cardiologist made me almost leap back to Baker City.

How it all started

I first found out there was something wrong with my heart in May 2000.

Actually, the process started a couple months earlier in March of that year after I returned from covering Bakers stay at the Class 3A state basketball tournament at Corvallis.

While at Corvallis, toting some heavy camera gear at the games, I started having chest and shoulder tightness and shortness of breath.

I guess I didnt want to accept that there was something wrong. So, I kept putting off going to the doctor. But finally, after some tough prodding from family and friends, I went to see Dr. Bob McKim.

After hearing my symptoms, he set up a treadmill stress test at Grande Ronde Hospital at La Grande. My first trip to La Grande, the same weekend as Bakers state playoff softball game at The Dalles, was fruitless. The doctor there refused to conduct the test because my blood pressure was too high.

So, I went on to The Dalles, covered the game, and made another trip to La Grande the following week after adding another blood pressure medication to the one I already was taking.

Thats when the bad news really started. I managed just over two minutes on the treadmill, and really had pain and shortness of breath.

By the time I had recovered from the test and driven back to Baker City, an appointment had been made with a cardiologist in Boise.

On June 29, I visited the cardiologist, and he scheduled an angiogram the following day at St. Alphonsus Hospital.

What they found were five blockages, in varying severities, in arteries around my heart.

The cardiologist had a surgeon talk to me and my family, and the surgeon scheduled surgery for July 10. He also wanted me to lose weight. I was up to 330 pounds at the time.

The delays begin

I returned to Baker following the Boise tests, waiting for the surgery date to come. But, a couple days before that date, the surgeon called and asked if I minded postponing the surgery a week because of a backlog of surgeries at the hospital.

I said fine. So, a week later, we went to Boise and underwent all of the pre-admit testing, set surgery for the following morning and returned to the hotel.

That evening, the surgeon called my room and said he wanted to delay surgery again because he had found some abnormalities in some of my blood tests.

He wanted me to see a nephrologist (kidney doctor) because the creatinine level in my system was high. (Normal levels range between 0.5 and 1.0. Mine was 3.0). My good cholesterol (HDL) level also was low.

The doctors told us that in many cases a patient undergoing major surgery with high creatinine levels, or lower HDL levels, can suffer kidney failure. That wasnt something I was excited about.

So, after several more blood tests, it was back to Baker City to await the doctors decision. Meanwhile, I was unable to work at my job as sports editor at this newspaper, or anything else for that matter.

Finally, on July 26, they scheduled an ultrasound at St. Elizabeth. The test found good working kidneys.

So, it was basically wait, drop weight, and no work.

This continued until about Labor Day, when the doctors decided it was OK for me to work only from home rather than the office.

Things start to upswing

The extreme limits on my activity lasted until about Dec. 1, 2000. By that time I was down to 277 pounds.

Then the doctors said I could go back to covering local high school games, but I still had to remain on a stress-free (right!) schedule otherwise.

I have had several other visits with the cardiologist both in Boise and in Baker City in the past 18 months while using medications to try to lower the creatinine level and raise the HDL level.

The cardiologist has been pleased with the continued improvements I have shown. Or, as he says, he has to go to a different mindset when he sees me than when he sees his other local patients.

As of Jan. 8, I have had no chest discomfort, no shortness of breath, and have lost almost 95 pounds (feels much better I have a goal of getting down to at least 200 pounds. Thats another 38 to go. Ill give it a heck of a shot).

Because of the good reports, the cardiologist said, after I successfully accomplished a second treadmill test, that his recommendation is to combat the blockages with medication and light exercise.

Lifestyle changes

Probably the biggest change in my life, other than limiting my activity, is diet.

With my normal schedule a Big Mac and fries, or a pizza was much easier to grab after a game.

But, I can happily say, it has been almost two years since Ive had fried or fatty foods.

I, and some other family members, have switched to eating many more fresh fruits and vegetables, bottled water, fruit juices, lean meats (limiting beef), and no salt.

Ive found that using sodium-free seasonings such as garlic and herb, lemon pepper and dill more than make up for the lack of sodium flavor. (And, the doctor has placed a limit on my daily intake of sodium anyway.)

Ive come to drool over a combination salad that may include seven or eight different vegetables, including lots of onion.

When people ask what, in particular, we are eating to drop the weight, I really cant answer them. I dont think weve made some of the dishes the same twice.

Taking a long walk

The doctors also asked me to do some walking each day.

In the past, Id always groan when my mom would ask me to go for a walk. Now, she cant keep me at home.

We usually try to walk for at least 30 minutes twice a day. It has taken some schedule-juggling and alternatives once the snow started flying. But in general we find a way to get our walks in each day.

We have several routes we follow, enjoying the scenery, animals, people who, as they have seen us on a regular basis, wave and smile, and enjoy the fresh air and sunshine.

Results, acknowledgments

I have to admit I feel 10 times better than I did two years ago. And, like any other endeavor, it has helped to have family and friends offer support and encouragement.

I have said several times during the past 24 months that I didnt know there were that many people in Baker County, and elsewhere, who really knew about or cared what I was going through.

The kind words, prayers and other encouragement has been greatly appreciated.

This whole experience has been an eye-opener for me, my family, and, hopefully, will only get better.

Gerry Steele, who has been dealing with potential heart surgery for two years, is Baker City Herald sports editor. He can be reached at