Even though Heinz Pak was born with a hole in his heart, it didn’t stop him from being an active kid and adult. When he was 3 weeks old, Heinz was diagnosed with ventricular septal defect (VSD), which can be one or more holes in the wall that separates the right and left ventricles of the heart. VSD is one of the most common congenital (present from birth) heart defects.
With regular check-ups and a heart catheterization at 5 and again at 15 years old to make sure the hole wasn’t getting bigger, Heinz’s heart remained healthy. Better than healthy, actually.
He began playing soccer when he was 10 and didn’t stop until after a few years of playing on an indoor pro soccer team after college.
It wasn’t until he reached 40 years old and had a wife and two kids that he could tell his heart wasn’t acting right. He was becoming increasingly tired during the day, his heart wasn’t beating correctly, and his hands and feet were swollen.
After several tests, Heinz learned he had an aortic aneurysm and the hole in his heart was getting bigger. He was referred to Dr. John Lane, director of the Adult Congenital Heart Service at Akron Children’s Hospital, for his expertise in both pediatric and adult cardiology. After additional tests, Dr. Lane recommended open heart surgery.
On April 1, 2008, Heinz and his wife walked into Akron Children’s Hospital for surgery with Drs. Phil Smith and Michael Spector.
“My wife and I were quiet – we talked a little, but mostly cried,” said Heinz. “We cried because we were both scared.”
When Heinz woke up, his family was by his side. The surgery was a success even though they learned there was a 2 mm hole in the aneurism, which could have fatally burst.
“Everyone at the hospital was great,” he said. “The kids they care for there get quality care, but so do a lot of adults who are also part of the Akron Children’s family because they have congenital defects like mine.”
Once he was well enough, Heinz started walking to get exercise. Then he started running – but it was hard for him to catch his breath. At first, he could only run 100 yards. But then 100 yards turned into 200 yards, then a quarter-mile, then half a mile. The next thing he knows, he’s training for a half marathon.
About a year after his open heart surgery, Heinz finished his first half marathon in less than two hours – beating his goal. Then he trained for a full marathon and finished in less than 4:45. But he’s not stopping at marathons either.
“Ever since I was 12 years old or so, I’ve wanted to compete in the Ironman Triathlon in Maui,” said Heinz. “Since my heart surgery, I’ve stopped putting things off and am trying to accomplish the things I want to do.”