Phil Haines was a recently-retired Marine Corps gunnery sergeant. He turned to distance running as a way to cope with the stress of his wife’s congenital liver disease. A transplant saved her life. And a few years later, Haines’ running hobby helped save his.
In the last five years, Haines ran more than 20 marathons. Last October he and his wife Joann Schaefer, MD were preparing to return to Quantico, VA for the Marine Corps Marathon. Haines was on track for a personal best. A week and a half before the race, they each had one long training run left – 20 miles.
“I thought I was running too fast,” Haines remembers. “I felt like the cat was sitting on my chest. My right arm started feeling numb.”
That day, for reasons neither can explain, they ran in opposite directions on the loop trail around Lake Zorinksy. Dr. Schaefer came upon her husband just as he started feeling the chest pain.
“It was odd,” she says. “Seeing him shake his arm and grip his chest. We stopped, he said, ‘My chest feels a little funny’ so I had him sit down on a bench. He started feeling better, but I said, ‘We can’t blow this off.’” After checking him for other symptoms, Dr. Schaefer called Antonio Reyes, MD, a Nebraska Medicine cardiologist.
Dr. Reyes saw Phil the next day. “My initial reaction after talking to Phil was that his pain was somewhat atypical in that the pain moved to his right arm instead of his left. In addition, he was very fit and had very few risk factors for coronary artery disease. However, he did mention that he would get this chest pain every time he would start running. This gave me enough suspicion to initiate workup.”
Dr. Reyes ordered a series of tests which at first did not show anything conclusive. But each test pointed to some kind of problem, so Dr. Reyes kept digging. He sent Haines for a cardiac catheterization to see the condition of the inside of his blood vessels. The results were stunning: three main blood vessels were blocked 99 percent, 90 percent and 80 percent.
“At first I thought they didn’t have the right patient,” Dr. Schaefer says. “He had just run his best half marathon time a few weeks before. He was running 40 miles a week. When we went in for that procedure, we really expected to find nothing.”
“He said, ‘The good news is your heart is strong. The bad news is the plumbing.’ I wasn’t leaving the hospital,” Haines recalls. He was scheduled for triple bypass surgery the next morning. His heart was strong despite the blockages. All those marathons may have saved his life.
Dr. Schaefer knows what it’s like to prepare for major surgery. As the recipient of a living donor liver transplant several years before, she had been there herself. This time, she was in the waiting room. Cardiothoracic surgeon John Um, MD kept the family updated. There were a few complications. The triple bypass became a quadruple bypass. After nine hours, Dr. Um emerged with the good news. Haines was in recovery and the outlook was great.
“Phil’s level of fitness allowed him to recover quickly,” said Dr. Um. “However it also may have given him a false sense of reassurance earlier on in his disease. It’s very important to remember heart disease is still the most common cause of death and can affect people at all ages and with varying degrees of risk factors.”
That’s the message Haines wants others to remember about his story. Get checked. Know your cholesterol and blood pressure numbers. Pay attention to the seemingly little things that can point to bigger problems.
“I’m glad Joann had enough suspicion to bring him in,” Dr. Reyes says. “Given that Phil is such a healthy individual, it would have been easy to disregard his symptoms. The moral of the story is not to take chest pain lightly, particularly if it is predictably brought on by activity.”
“I did the ‘what-ifs’ after the surgery,” Haines says. “What if I hadn’t run into Joann on that training run? What if I had run that race?” His wife had similar thoughts. “He just returned from a work trip to Korea and Japan. What if something happened on the plane over the Pacific Ocean?”
The couple didn’t spend much time looking back. After all, running is about looking ahead and moving forward. There was work to do. Soon after leaving the hospital, Phil was back at the med center to start cardiac rehab. For someone who just weeks before was running 20 miles at a time, it was hard to focus on taking slow steps on a treadmill. Before long, the slow walking became short jogs. And then longer runs. By December, Phil and Joann were back at Lake Zorinsky.
Four months past his surgery, Phil Haines has another finish line in mind: the Marine Corps Historic Half Marathon in May. His wife will run with him, along with a dedicated group of friends from his active duty Marine Corps days. It may not be his fastest run, but it’s hard for him to hide the emotion of looking ahead at that race and all it represents.
“It’s going to be awesome. The first of many more.”