Saturday 20 Sep 2014

Information and opinions presented here do not always represent the views of the American Heart Association.

STORIES FROM THE HEART: Quadruple bypass turns longtime smoker into dedicated marathon runner

Published: 9:00 am CDT, March 6, 2014

Jacob Sternfeld started smoking when he was 12 and by age 50 had hardly ever stopped. He was burning through 30 cigarettes a day, practically two for every waking hour.

“My wife said it was like a secret mistress, because I’d leave dinner to smoke,” he said.

In March 2009, Jacob felt a strange pain in his throat. He figured the pounding sensation was indigestion and had a cigarette. The pain went away, so he didn’t think much more about it.

The next day, it happened again. Jacob ignored it again.

When it happened for a third straight day, Jacob’s wife, Andrea Mia, began to worry. As she began researching a possible cause, Jacob went outside to smoke.

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Andrea learned that sensations in the chest can be felt in the neck. Fearing a heart problem, she insisted on taking Jacob to the hospital.

He agreed to go. But since he felt fine, he wanted to avoid the crowded emergency room he expected to find at his local hospital, so they went to another 20 minutes away.

Doctors there discovered Jacob had had a heart attack. A cardiac catheterization procedure showed he needed a quadruple bypass.

It was a lot to take in for Jacob, who was living in Durham, N.C., but is a native of the Netherlands, where the primary language is Dutch.

“My English wasn’t really that good for the technical terms they were using,” he said.

Andrea knew a little Dutch, so she translated as best she could, navigating communications with the doctors and Jacob’s family.

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The surgery was more complicated than expected because the surgeon had difficulty accessing the veins around Jacob’s heart.

“The doctor told me it smelled like a smoke shop when he opened me up,” Jacob said. “He didn’t have much hope for me.”

The surgeon also came away with little hope for Jacob’s long-term recovery – unless he kicked his cigarette habit.

“He told me I could continue smoking if I wanted to, but that I’d end up right back on the operating table within five years,” Jacob said. “That was the trigger I needed to quit.”

He’d tried quitting many times, starting in his 20s. It never worked. He neglected other aspects of his health, rarely exercising or watching his diet, despite being on medication for high cholesterol.

In recent years, his focus had been elsewhere. He and Andrea met in 2006 and had a whirlwind romance, marrying and shuttling between the U.S. and the Netherlands. In 2007, each endured the death of their fathers and spent half of 2008 in Amsterdam, trying to renovate Jacob’s brother’s home.

Heeding the surgeon’s warning, Jacob began to take his health seriously. He learned more about a healthy lifestyle from cardiac rehabilitation. He began exercising three times a week with Andrea at his side as supporter and translator.

In late 2010, Jacob hired a personal trainer and set a goal of running a 5K.

He did, but “it was terrible.”

“I was one of the last finishers,” he said.

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So Jacob dedicated himself to becoming even more fit. He stopped eating most meat and dairy products, cut back on carbohydrates and ended up losing 40 pounds.

He ran a few more 5Ks, and his times improved. He trained for a half-marathon in November 2011 in North Carolina, then a full marathon in the Netherlands the following spring.

Spurred by his successes – he finished his first marathon in 4 hours, 34 minutes – Jacob decided to run all the major marathons: New York, Boston, Chicago, Berlin, London and Tokyo.

His first attempt was New York in 2012, a race that was canceled because of Hurricane Sandy. In April 2013, he ran the Boston Marathon, but didn’t finish – he was less than a mile away when a terrorist bombing halted the race.

The dream continues, though. He finished the New York and Chicago races in 2013, and is planning on crossing the finish line in London and Berlin this year.

In 2015, he has special plans for the race in Tokyo: He’s going to run it with his heart surgeon, who was so inspired by Jacob’s story that he began competing in triathlons.

Now 55, Jacob is a certified running coach and hopes to inspire heart patients to get healthy.

His diet and exercise enabled him to eliminate the cholesterol medication he taken for years, and the inhalers and heart medicine prescribed following his bypass surgery. Today, he takes only a daily aspirin.

“It’s been amazing and I feel good,” Jacob said. “I want others to know what they can do.”

Jacob has stayed away from cigarettes for nearly five years, the longest since he first began the habit.

“I still miss them every day, but I’ll never use them again,” he said. “They say cigarettes are like a friend, but they’re a friend that will kill you.”

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Photos courtesy of Jacob Sternfeld

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Do you know a “Story from the Heart” we should tell? 

Send an email to stories@heart.org that’s as brief or as detailed as you’d like.

Previous “Stories from the Heart” include:

`1000 to 1,’ the amazing story of Cory Weissman

Saved by bystanders, woman works to get more trained in CPR

Taking her symptoms seriously saved herd life; luckily, it was ‘Just A Little Heart Attack’