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For Jeremy Woodward, Ironman athlete, it’s all about his heart

  • Jeremy Woodward gets the okay to run in the upcoming Ironman competition from his cardiologist Dr. Carl Fier earlier this week at Eliot Hospital in Manchester. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Jeremy Woodward was happy with the results after his doctor visit at the Eliot Hospital earlier this week. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Dr. Carl Fier (left) studies images of Jeremy Woodward’€™s heart at the Elliot Hospital in Manchester. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Cardiologist Carl Fier checks Jeremy Woodward’s pulse during a check up last week at Elliot Hospital in Manchester. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Jeremy Woodward was a bit nervous during his medical exam until he got the good news at the end. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Jeremy Woodward goes for a short ride along Fisk Road in Concord on Thursday, Nov. 9, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Jeremy Woodward goes for a short bike ride along Fisk Road in Concord on Thursday. Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor staff



Monitor staff
Saturday, November 11, 2017

The doctor studies the screen, looking at a grainy, pulsating blob that could pass for, well, a grainy, pulsating blob.

It’s an undefined shape, hard to describe, with a regular rhythm, openings that close then re-open, and a restlessness that Jeremy Woodward hopes will carry him to the finish line next weekend in the Ironman Arizona, one of the most grueling athletic events on the planet.

The cardiologist at Elliot Hospital in Manchester, Carl Fier, is playful, answering Woodward’s question – what’s the doctor looking for on the echocardiogram that might prevent Woodward from competing – with this:

“If the heart is exploding, that’s no good. Or if we see an alien inside.”

The coast is clear. There’s no explosion, and there’s no sign of a little green man. Fier tells Woodward, “Everything is fine,” meaning it’s okay for him to swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles, then run 26.2 miles.

Woodward is relieved, beaming. “Great,” he says. “Great.”

Those numbers above are associated with this three-sport monster, and this event, on Nov. 19, will be the second Ironman for the 39-year-old Woodward, but his first in five years.

That’s a miracle really, when you consider what happened to Woodward, who played basketball for Bishop Brady High School in the late 1990s.

In 2000, he received a tissue valve to replace his damaged aortic valve, something he was born with. A mechanical valve would have been better, stronger, but Woodward, then just 22, wanted to continue competing in full-contact karate.

“I did not want to be restricted,” Woodward told me. “I felt invincible. I was 22. They told me the drawback was it could last 10 or 15 years. It lasted seven.”

That’s why Woodward almost died in 2007. He gained 30 pounds of fluid. He grew winded climbing stairs. He once had to stop a bike ride up a hill, had to get off and walk.

Who was this guy? Certainly not Woodward the fitness freak.

He spent six weeks in the hospital. Shortly after surgery, Woodward’s early exercise routine included a lap around the hospital floor, accompanied by an IV walker, with its bags of fluid and winding tubes.

Woodward told me he nearly died when I met him in 2009, and that’s what Fier told me when I met him last week, during Woodward’s echocardiogram and EKG, the testing that would later clear him for Arizona.

Fier scanned Woodward’s medical record, tapping on the mouse, the screen’s light reflecting off his glasses. I asked him about Woodward’s condition before he received that thumbnail-sized, mechanical valve 10 years ago to replace the failed tissue valve.

Fier smiled. Then he forced a subtle laugh, the kind you create when you’re not really laughing.

“When he went in for the re-operation he was pretty close to death,” Fier said.

Today, Woodward’s boot camp business does well, with about 100 of his own clients and a few instructors to whom he rents space. At the time of his surgery, though, Woodward’s business was brand new, a cruel irony not lost on him. Knowing full well he might not leave the hospital alive, he says he told his wife, Brook, “If I get out of here I want to do an Ironman, and I got obsessed with this.

“Knowing my body went through hell and knowing the body is amazing the way it could respond made it about pushing limits and what limits could be pushed,” said Woodward, who works to recognize his own limits. “I have to keep my heart rate down. I could give two s---- about time. I feel lucky.”

He competed in the Lake Placid Ironman in 2010, but the script was re-written after that. There was the script in life, the one that said Woodward was back, good as ever, and the one from a movie called Heart: Flatline to Finish Line, which was released last year.

The movie script would tell the story of eight athletes, each of whom had suffered heart issues ranging from perforated arteries to valve replacements. Their training would be documented leading up to the 2012 Ironman Arizona. Their lives would be inspirational, a tribute to the human spirit.

Woodward was part of the cast. So was a man named Scott Roy of Spokane, Wash., who also had had a valve replacement procedure.

Roy died after a long bike ride, during the early stages of production. Later, Woodward, who had grown close to Roy, was told he couldn’t compete in Arizona because doctors had detected a slight change in his aorta.

The filmmaker was Dave Watkins of Seattle, whose heart once stopped for five minutes before he set Ironman goals himself. He was at that appointment when Woodward learned he would not be competing in Arizona.

“I don’t know if he fully grasped right away the idea that this was not a good idea,” Watkins said by phone. “But it didn’t take him long to accept it. As soon as he got home and saw his wife and kids, I saw the spark in his eyes and he knew this was not the right time and he would live to race another day.”

Fast forward, to now. Regular annual checkups have gone well the past five years, so recently Woodward began to get the Ironman itch once again.

“I wanted to finish what I started,” he told me.

Woodward called me, asking if I’d like to ride down with him to Elliot Hospital to watch testing. If he passed, if his doctor gave him the green light to compete in Arizona, I’d be there to record the joy.

If not, I’d be there to document that reaction, as well.

Brook, of course, had insisted Woodward get cleared for the race, something he sort of nudged into the background, wondering if he could handle the truth.

One day, before a long bike ride, Brook sarcastically asked her husband, “How did that appointment go?”

“I left on the bike frustrated. I didn’t want to hear that I can’t go (to Arizona). I had worked hard,” said Woodward, who made an appointment with Fier 15 miles into the ride, then texted Brook to tell her.

Woodward is forever balancing his thirst to compete with his wife and their three daughters, one of whom is seven months old. He wants to compete. He wants to be a loving family man for many years.

He wants both.

We meet before 8 a.m., at Woodward’s fitness center for the half-hour drive, and it’s not surprising to learn that Woodward doesn’t drink coffee. He’s nervous, telling me, “I’m sort of dreading going for this.”

We park in the hospital garage, move across a long catwalk, through an automatic-opening pair of double doors and into the lobby, where Woodward checks in and catches the staff off guard by announcing a writer and photographer would like to join him for his echocardiogram and EKG.

We’re met by Susanna Fier, the vice president of public affairs and marketing who happens to be the wife of Dr. Fier. While she seeks clearance for us, Woodward remembers his 2007 post surgery days, when he’d hug a pillow tight to his stitched-up chest while sneezing to minimize unbearable pain.

“I thought my chest was going to explode,” he says.

We get the green light and move to Testing Room 1, where Woodward lies on his left side while Matt Lower, a cardiac sonographer, dabs some conductive gel onto the tip of a probe and begins touching Woodward’s chest.

That creates the pulsating blob on the screen, the one Fier studies while joking with Woodward, his patient for 10 years. He’s checking on the valve and looking at the chambers.

“How are the kids?”

“Got a new one.”

“Another girl?”

“Yep.”

With beeps beeping and a jagged line moving across the screen, Woodward asks, “How’s it look, Dr. Fier?”

“Beautiful,” Fier replies.

Later comes the EKG, which checks the heart’s electrical activity. Mary Ann, a nurse who declines to give her last name, attaches 12 electrodes to Woodward, who’s reclining in a chair that looks part airplane seat, part rocket ship seat.

“Obviously I will adhere to what he says,” Woodward tells me, anticipating Fier’s appearance. “But to work this hard and be told that I shouldn’t do Arizona...”

His voice trails off. His final long bike ride before the Ironman, 80 miles, is scheduled for the next day.

If Fier says he’s good to go, that is.

The door creeks open at 9:18 a.m. and in walks Fier, with a stethoscope draped around his shoulders like a scarf. He’s grilling Woodward in a friendly manner, about how he’s feeling, what sort of exercise he’s doing, is he experiencing shortness of breath, any heart palpations.

Fier is clicking the mouse, looking at the EKG results and Woodward’s recent history. He places his stethoscope onto Woodward’s back and asks him to breathe deeply.

Then he says, “Everything is looking good. Keep doing what you’re doing.”

Woodward, still unsure, wants more. “And Arizona?” he asks.

“Yes that’s fine,” Fier says, adding to me, “Not only does he have a normal heart, but he has a super-normal heart based on the workouts he’s doing.”

We leave. Woodward is beaming and tells me Brook has already texted a few times, seeking results even prior to Woodward’s 8:30 a.m. appointment.

He clips his cell phone to the dash and calls Brook. “We are good to go,” he tells her.

“You’re good to go?” Brook responds.

“The doctor said I’m super-normal.”

I confirm that fact to her, then ask Brook if she’s happy. She laughs a nervous laugh and says, “Yes, I’m happy because I know he wants to do it.”

After the call ends, I ask Woodward if my hunch is right, that Brook would rather he not push himself in this manner.

“You’re 100 percent right,” he tells me.

So, later, I call Brook, wondering how right I was. Maybe she’d sugarcoat it. How far would she search inside to reach for what must be a hard truth? She searches far.

“I am happy Jeremy not only got clearance from his doctor to compete, but very happy that there has been no change to the condition of his heart,” Brook writes in an email. “I am the worrier, I think of everything that could go wrong during the race. I know how much competing in this race means to him, but I will definitely be on edge until he crosses the finish line.”

She said she’ll be there with their three daughters, ringing cowbells, holding signs.

Woodward’s training is nearly finished. We pull into the parking lot, at Woodward’s gym on Manchester Street.

“Now I’m pumped,” Woodward says. “Now we go to Arizona. We’ll do it and see what the day brings.”