Success! Returning to Diving After Heart Surgery | Scuba Diving

Successful Return to Scuba Diving After Open Heart Surgery | Heart Disease & Diving Chapter 6

scuba divers at the surface

"My plan was to go diving for my birthday at the end of July, almost exactly six months from the date of my surgery. I missed it by about a week."

Courtesy Eric Douglas

Chapter 6: Back in the Water

Six months ago I began a journey that I didn’t expect, certainly wasn’t looking for and truthfully would have rather avoided. I’m a better man, both physically and mentally, for having gone through it.

Being told I had coronary artery disease and would need surgery was a mental blow. I wasn’t even sure what the surgery would entail until I watched one of the hospital’s informational videos the night before. I did know that I wasn’t going to let it beat me.

I set my goal before I left the hospital: I was going to recover and get back to diving. My plan was to go diving for my birthday at the end of July, almost exactly six months from the date of my surgery. I missed it by about a week.

I’ve written a lot about the cardiac recovery process and what it takes to return to diving, so I won’t belabor the point. (Read the previous installments of this series.)

In mid-July my doctor signed my medical release form saying that he “found no medical conditions incompatible with diving.” I had him sign the standard RSTC Medical Release form, and I scanned it as soon as I got home. Now, any dive operation that I want to dive with will have the signed medical release in advance. I’ve also stored a copy of the form on my phone so I always have it with me, just in case someone asks.

My surgery was January 29 and my 49th birthday was July 27, almost exactly six months apart. Unfortunately, I was away on my birthday so I couldn’t go diving until the following week. The question at that point was where? I thought about running down to Florida to see some friends, and I briefly considered getting on a plane and heading for the Caribbean, but neither was practical at the moment.

So I decided to go back to where it all started.

scuba divers underwater

Just six months after undergoing open-heart surgery, Eric Douglas successfully returned to scuba diving with his father by his side.

Courtesy Eric Douglas

Before I ever made a dive in the ocean, I logged my first 60+ dives in Summersville Lake in West Virginia. It made perfect sense for me to head back there to get back in the water following the surgery — it was like coming full circle. So, a week after my birthday, and a few days before my dad’s 78th birthday, we grabbed our gear and headed to the lake.

I probably should have been a little nervous about getting back in the water, but I wasn’t. I knew I was well-prepared. Physically, I was in better shape than I’d been in for a long time. I did feel a sense of relief that I was back at it. I was excited the ordeal was "over," and it felt good to be weightless again. It was nice to be able to share the experience with my dad, too. That made the day pretty much perfect.

I put the word “over” in quotes for a reason. I’ve gotten my health back and I’m feeling good. Mentally, I’m happy and have a much better perspective on the world. There are days that life is a pain in the neck and there are problems, but after the doctors had to stop my heart to fix my plumbing, everything pales in comparison. I refuse to let the stress kill me and I refuse to sit on the sidelines. I appreciate life more.

The key to this, though, is realizing the process isn’t over. I didn’t go on an exercise program and diet exclusively to get back to diving. I’ve made lifestyle changes. I exercise almost every day. I eat the way I know I am supposed to. I do take rest days, and I do enjoy the occasional dessert, but I haven’t gone back to eating the way I used to. I don’t blow off workouts anymore. Before, I would get busy with work and say “I don’t have time to work out.” That’s no longer an option. The workout is always on my To Do list.

Eric Douglas 5K

After reaching his goal of scuba diving again, Eric Douglas set — and successfully completed — a new one: participating in a 5K.

Courtesy Ashlin Douglas

As soon as I was given the clearance to dive, I decided to set myself a new goal. I knew if I didn’t have something to push for, it would be easy to slack off. I’ve never been a runner, but walking and light jogging have become a big part of my exercise routine since the surgery. My new goal was jogging the entire distance of a 5K. I was able to meet that goal on September 10, at the local Heart Walk sponsored by the American Heart Association. It wasn’t fast, or pretty, but I jogged the entire distance. And my team, Team Second Chance, raised $500 for the cause as well. (Thanks to some kind donations from several friends in the dive community.)

It took me about six months to go from surgery to diving again, but there is no typical timeframe. I have a good friend who is recovering from open-heart surgery right now and he expects to be back in the water in three months. I have heard from others who have told me it took them three years or more to get cleared to dive. Everyone is different and there is no typical recovery time. The key is to keep working at it and to not give up on the goal.

The staff at Scuba Diving magazine has been extremely supportive in allowing me to tell this story and many thanks go out to them. I wanted to take you, the reader, along with me on this journey because I hoped that if you ended up on the same situation I’m in, you would know what to expect. My hope is that will lessen your anxiety. It’s a challenge, but not an end to diving and living. (Isn’t that the same thing?)

I hope you never have to hear the words “coronary artery disease” from your doctor. To improve the odds you won’t, quit smoking, get regular exercise, eat more fruits and vegetables, lose that weight you’ve been meaning to lose, and get your waist below 40/35 inches.

Take care of yourself and I hope to see you underwater!

Missed something? Here are the previous installments from Eric Douglas on his road to recovery.
Chapter 1: First Signs of Heart Disease
Chapter 2: What You Learn During the Cardiac Rehab Process
Chapter 3: How to Make Heart-Healthy Changes
Chapter 4: What are the Risks of Diving after a Heart Attack?
Chapter 5: Risks and Limitations of Diving After Surgery


Author’s Note:

Since 2009, I’ve written the Lessons for Life column for Scuba Diving magazine providing analysis of scuba diving accidents so others can learn from them — and hopefully avoid being in the same situation.

In the ultimate Lessons for Life, I invite you to follow along as I write about my personal experience with coronary artery disease, open heart surgery and the recovery process over the next few months.

Eric Douglas co-authored the book Scuba Diving Safety and has written a series of adventure novels, children’s books and short stories — all with an ocean and scuba diving theme. Follow him on Facebook or check out his website at booksbyeric.com

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