Training BJJ after both heart attack and a knee injury? True Inspiration...
We all begin our jiu jitsu training with some type of shortcoming. Some are small and others are big. When I began my jiu jitsu journey in 2017, my main shortcoming was my left knee. While training in judo a year before, in one unwise twisting of my knee, I tore my ACL, LCL, MCL, and my meniscus. I opted for physical therapy over surgery. Through that and modified judo training for about three months, I was able to remain on the mat, and when I started jiu jitsu, I was well aware of the movements that were not good for all those tears and worked around it accordingly. Honesty, not ego, helped me remain on the mat.
In the September 2020, I noticed I had what felt like a sore muscle running between my shoulder blades. I was 50 and nearly everybody I trained with was younger, stronger, and had more stamina than me. This led me to believe age was catching up with me and that I needed train harder. In addition, this was the pandemic year. My school had just reopened, so I added to my equation the fact that not getting on the mat with regularity had impacted my stamina. I attributed these circumstances to be the root of my pain. About a week after the pain began, I was having problems drilling. Exhaustion set in quickly. I yearned for the instructor to tell us to stop so he could move on to the next technique, allowing me to relax as he demonstrated. One night after feeling this way, I felt sick and weak. I left the school and went right to a convenience store and ate all I could in an attempt to bring the weakness and nausea to an end. I has recently been diagnosed with diabetes and believed this had something do with how I was feeling. In the days that followed, my heart began racing. I wrote it off to anxiety, as did my doctor. I then became overcome with heart palpitations. I wrote it off to a new diabetic medication I had recently been prescribed. The pain between my shoulders now felt like a pinched nerve. “Ride it out. You’ve been through this before. You’re 50 and engage in what can be a brutal activity.” These things ran through my head - and I believed them. I had just gone for a stress test earlier that summer. I had been seeing a cardiologist for over a decade due to my father having a heart attack at 42, although his was brought on my smoking, stress, and lack of exercise. I believed I was doing everything right.
Non-ST Segment Elevation Myocardial Infarction (NSTEMI) - A Heart Attack:
On the morning of Saturday September 12, 2020, I stopped by my jiu jitsu school on my way to work to say hello to my friends. I had a few laughs and soon after headed for the office. At around 11am, at my desk, the pain in my back suddenly spiked. It now wrapped around my back, under my arms, into my chest, up my neck, and into my jaw. It was excruciating. I couldn’t remain still. I had to move. The pain was too great. I stretched out on a couch, dropped to my knees, I was unable to swallow my saliva and had to spit it into a trashcan. Nothing relieved the pain. After a few minutes, the pain dropped to a tolerable level, at which time I called my wife. I still thought was muscle issue. My wife picked me up and took me to the emergency department. The initial observation of the emergency department doctor was that I was suffering from a muscle issue. My EKG was normal. There was nothing telling him my ailment was cardiac related. Then the bloodwork results came back. A protein in my blood called “troponin” was just on the verge of being considered elevated. This protein, when seen in excessive levels, indicates a cardiac event (heart attack) has, or is, occurring. I was having a heart attack.
Not all heart attacks are dramatic like those had over and over again by Redd Foxx on “Sanford and Son.” This was pain - extreme pain. But the pain was not limited to just my chest. Actually, the back pain was the most alarming to me. I was put on blood thinner and closely monitored for a couple of days. On the third day in the hospital, a catheterization scope was inserted into my wrist, up my arm, and threaded to my heart. And for those who are not aware you are awake for this. A 100% blockage of my circumflex artery was discovered and three stents were inserted to open it up. I was home the following day. The following day I was in front of my cardiologist, and I had questions. Fortunately, because I immediately went to the hospital, there was no permanent damage to my heart. After asking about the heart attack itself and what I needed to do to keep from having another, the main thing I wanted to know was how long would I have to wait until I could get back on the mat. Keep in mind, I’m not a competitor, and my drive to get back on the mat had nothing to do with preparing for a fight. Jiu jitsu for me is peace of mind. It is comradey. It is stress relief. I wanted to get back as quickly as possible because jiu jitsu makes me feel better in so many ways, and having gone through the past four days, I needed it more than ever. I was told I had to stay off the mat for at least five weeks, and even then my return had to be a gradual.
Reconsidering Mat Time
As so many people have told me, time on the mat is what matters most. But how do you get mat time when you are not allowed on the mat? For me, this meant going to my school and watching class. I felt good just being there. But what I quickly discovered was how much I absorbed by observing. Studying my instructors demonstrate techniques seemed different from the sidelines. I saw more, understood more. Watching my teammates practice techniques was also eye-opening. A lanky blue belt with a stocky four stripe white belt; two young and lanky white belts; two older blue belts; a small and seasoned purple belt with a new blue belt … the permutations seemed endless. The techniques were being done in a way in which they all looked the same, yet they were still all different. I had discovered a way to keep logging mat time without ever stepping on the mat. I am nearly a year out from my heart attack, and I still watch others roll with an intensity I had not known prior to this life changing event.
When I eventually stepped back on the mat, five weeks later, it was in a very limited capacity. I did not do the warmup. I did not participate in randori. I carefully chose my training partners, and my drilling was even more methodical and slower than usual. I believe the mental reward of being back out there was even greater than the physical aspect. Walking back on the mat after being told by medical professionals that I “got lucky” was not lost on me, nor was it lost on my teammates, who could not have offered more encouragement and compassion. After a few months and another cardiologist appointment, I increased my drilling intensity; started adding a single flow roll during randori (still carefully selecting my partner); slowly increasing my intensity; and doing whatever I had to do to remain fully engaged in jiu jitsu. The key for me was not rushing. I knew jiu jitsu was not going anywhere, but if I pushed it, I would be sidelined for an unknown amount of time.
I look at my heart attack no differently than I do my damaged left knee - it is something I had to work around. Like all things in jiu jitsu, it is an adjustment. As we get older and accrue more injuries, we adjust our game. All too often people believe “adjustment” is synonymous with “regression,” but nothing can be further from the truth. I have found my various adjustments over the years to be opportunities and challenges that keep the jiu jitsu journey one of great excitement. I rely a lot on a counter-game. I cannot stand to pass guard due to my knee, so I constantly work on pressure passing. I should not push myself into exhaustion due to my heart, so I focus on conserving energy and making the most of those moments explosive movement. Everybody has their own path. For me, that path views adjustments not as a downward movement, but instead a lateral one in which there is an entire world of techniques and styles to pursue.
Author: Jeffrey Anderson
Jeffrey is a blue belt and trains under Professor Peter McHugh- owner and Lead Instructor of McHugh Jiu Jitsu in Mt Laurel, New Jersey - Professor Peter McHugh received his black belt from Professor Ricardo Almeida in December of 2013.