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STORIES FROM THE HEART: Gulf War veteran recovers from heart attack to run marathon; he dedicates race to his cardiologist

Published: 9:00 am CDT, April 3, 2014

It was the Monday before Thanksgiving a few years ago, and Greg Weglowski was on his bicycle.

Greg – a Gulf War veteran who at the time was a special agent for the federal government – knew something was wrong. When he pushed the pedals, “it just felt impossible,” he recalled.

“I felt like I was biking in slow motion,” he said. “I had shooting pain in my left arm. I was sweating buckets. I just couldn’t catch my breath.”

Yet when he got home, Greg went to work. It took weeks before he finally saw a doctor.

Tests showed that he’d had a heart attack. One artery was 50-percent blocked, another was 90-percent blocked and his main coronary artery was fully blocked.

“You should be dead,” the doctor told him.

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Although Greg led an active life – filled with hobbies such as running, fly fishing and cross-country skiing – there were red flags indicating potential heart problems.

His family history automatically put him at risk: His father had triple bypass surgery at age 49, and his mother had five bypasses by 53.

While he was only 40, he had anything but a heart-healthy diet. Between a busy, stressful job and the obligations of being a divorced father of two teenage sons, he admittedly ate whatever he wanted, things like pizza and cheeseburgers.

“I really wasn’t eating a lot of vegetables then or paying attention to my diet,” he said.

He dismissed any health concerns because of his overall fitness level – such as running seven marathons over the 23 months prior to his heart attack. In retrospect, his pace was probably too intense.

“I trained for the first marathon, but then afterwards I wasn’t consistent about my exercise,” Greg said. “I would run a few miles a week and then go do a marathon. After the heart attack, the doctor told me what’s really important is to be consistent with my exercise routine.”

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Doctors told Greg that being a runner probably saved his life. Greg credits Dr. Amjad Farha, a cardiologist at the Henry Ford Heart & Vascular Institute in Detroit, for getting his life back on track.

Dr. Farha inserted four stents to open the blocked arteries and restore blood flow. Thanks to medication, cutting out salty, fatty foods, eating more fresh produce, and a physical fitness program that has been cleared by Greg’s physicians, he feels better than ever.

Gradually, Greg resumed running following his surgery in late 2008. He completed a half marathon in 2011, and a Tough Mudder obstacle race in 2012.

In October 2013, Greg completed the Grand Rapids, Mich., marathon in honor of Dr. Farha. He even presented Dr. Farha with the medal to thank him for saving his life.

Greg has a better understanding now of the dangers of heart disease – the No. 1 leading cause of death in the United States, claiming about 386,000 lives annually. And every year, about 635,000 people in the U.S. have a first-time heart attack.

He knows that his family history was a major risk factor that he couldn’t control. But he could control his diet.

“That meant goodbye cheeseburgers and hello salads,” he said.

Greg visits his cardiologist once a year for checkups. He has returned to running shorter distances and is looking forward to a summer sky diving trip with his sons.

He wrote to the American Heart Association because he wanted to share his story. Part of his message is that you don’t have to run marathons or jump from planes to live a heart-healthy lifestyle.

“Going through a heart attack was stressful, but afterward, it’s really just about getting up and moving,” Greg said. “Take those baby steps to change your life. Walk around the block. Then maybe walk a mile. Then maybe run around the block. Start eating a salad once a week. When you have the knowledge of what you’re dealing with, and you tweak a few things, it can make a big difference. I always think the glass is half full and now that outlooks is enhanced that much more by what I went through. Life is too short to sit on the couch.”

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Photos courtesy of Greg Weglowski

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