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Duluth’s Anderson back on track after heart surgery

Greg Anderson

NORWALK, Ohio — As Greg Anderson lay in a hospital bed, he heard the chatter that filled his room but didn’t hear the most important words.

“You’re going to live,” a doctor reassured him.

Anderson had made it through eight hours of open-heart surgery in February at the Sanger Heart and Vascular Institute in Charlotte yet lost an extensive amount of blood, the result of taking an anti-    inflammatory medication leading up to the surgery. The Duluth native temporarily lost his ability to communicate properly, and his doctors believed he had suffered a stroke.

“The doctor would ask me, ‘What’s your name?’ or ‘What day is it?’ and I’d answer something like ‘hockey puck’ or ‘football,’ ” Anderson said. “I didn’t make any sense. For two days, the doctors were telling my family, ‘He could never be the same.’ I couldn’t do anything about it. I knew exactly what I wanted to say, but it just wouldn’t come out.”

One doctor, though, assured Anderson’s family that he would regain full consciousness.

Now, Anderson is competing this weekend in the Pro Stock division of the Summit Racing Equipment National Hot Rod Association Nationals at Summit Motorsports Park, less than five months after he underwent surgery to replace a faulty aortic valve.

But leaving the hospital and taking care of himself was his top priority — a three-month process meant forgoing intense daily trips to the gym, gaining back 10 of the 20 pounds he lost post-surgery, and going through cardiac rehabilitation three days a week.

“You look at life a little differently,” Anderson said. “You realize what’s important and, at first, when doctors first told me about it, all I worried about was a stupid race car and getting back into the race car. But you have to come to grips with it and realize this is life or death. You might not be around if you do the wrong thing.”

In 2011, doctors found during a routine physical that Anderson had a heart murmur, the byproduct of a deformed bicuspid aortic valve, which did not allow blood to flow properly through the largest artery in the body. His aorta had swelled to twice its size, yet CT scans every six months found that an aortic aneurysm had not grown further until February, when it was detected to be at least five centimeters in width.

Anderson, 53, admits he should have gotten a CT scan on his heart immediately after the 2013 NHRA season. Racing, the doctors told him, could put further strain on his heart.

“I kind of got cocky about it and figured it was never going to change,” he said. “The doctor called me on Feb. 1 and said, ‘It’s time. It’s expanded at a fast rate and there’s a fear of it bursting. If it bursts, you’re done.’ ”

Five days later, Anderson underwent surgery in which doctors replaced a faulty valve with a valve from a cow’s aorta. Denver Broncos coach John Fox underwent a similar surgery in November, and told the NFL Network that he’d known about his heart condition since 1997, and had planned to have surgery following the 2013 season.

“This isn’t due to poor lifestyle, not being healthy, too much stress, not enough stress,” Fox said in November. “This is basically something I was born with that I needed fixed.”

Anderson missed the first five races of the NHRA season and, when he returned to his car for the Spring Nationals on April 25 in Houston, he had a few questions in the back of his mind. Would he lose any sensation in his body? Would he be able to drive after this? Would his heart stand the velocity of going 200 miles an hour for less than 7 seconds?

That hasn’t happened. Anderson drives with titanium plates in his chest for stabilization, and has a pacemaker. He wears a fitted carbon chest protector each time he races.

“I had no idea, the first time I got into a race car, I wondered if the pacemaker would short out,” Anderson said. “But it didn’t bother me at all.”

He is currently 11th in the Pro Stock standings, 25 points out of the top 10 past the halfway point of the season. Anderson’s biggest concern right now is getting into contention for the final six races of the season, when the NHRA resets the drivers points, and the top 10 drivers in each of the four classifications — Pro Stock, Pro Stock Motorcycle, Funny Car, and Top Fuel — compete for the championship.

“I can’t play the sympathy card anymore,” Anderson said, laughing.