Back in the swim

For Ales Wittek, a heart attack at age 38 triggered by occlusive coronary disease left him facing a life of limitations. A competitive swimmer and dad of two young children, Ales was devastated. After two stints in hospital, he was referred to the Cardiac Rehabilitation and Secondary Prevention Program at St. Joseph’s Hospital. Not knowing what to expect, he describes being “in a state of uncertainty, fear and helplessness.” 

Ales Wittek with his swim medals

Pictured above: Ales Wittek with his medals

What would follow, however, would land Ales back on the starting blocks and medaling in the 2017 Ontario Masters Swimming Championships. Most importantly, “cardiac rehabilitation,” says Ales, “made me realize there is hope and not all is lost when it seems that way.” Here, in his own words, is Ales’ story:

On October 13, 2013, my life changed in more ways than one. It was a Sunday on Thanksgiving weekend. Our Middlesex swim team had a morning practice at the Canada Games Aquatic Centre in London. Our workout was not so bad – just around the three kilometre range. I felt fine and proud of my accomplishment that morning as it was the start of a new season and I had big hopes. I wanted to participate in the 2014 Ontario Masters Swimming Championships. You see, I was a competitive swimmer in my youth and a pretty good one at that. But as life went on, life took over– family, kids, work and responsibilities. There was no time for me but I was going to change that. Now that I was a dad, I wanted to show my children who I am and what I can do, but life had different plans for me. 

During the breakfast hour at a Cora restaurant where I was with my family, I felt sick, uneasy and uncomfortable. I was sweating profusely and had the need to cool down, thinking that the workout was maybe a bit too much for me. I decided to excuse myself and go outside for some fresh air. I never returned to that breakfast table. 

"The emergency room doctor said, 'Sir, you are having a heart attack.'"

Once outside trying to get fresh air, I found it hard to stand and crawled inside my truck attempting to find a comfortable position. I twisted every which way to get comfortable, to relieve this incredible internal pressure of weight off my chest. No matter which way I turned or what body position I came up with, I could not get rid of the pain. 

I was sweating, nauseous and in discomfort. At some point, I came to realize this is something more than just a body needing some electrolytes after a hard workout. My training and knowledge as a maintenance supervisor kicked in and I realized this may be a heart attack. At this point, I was in rough shape and could not possibly imagine walking from the truck to the restaurant to get help, so I used my phone and dialed my partner. I called at least five times but my calls went unanswered. As I later found out, she was busy with our two-year old in the washroom. I was getting annoyed by her not answering and was about to dial 911 when she appeared at the truck and asked me if I wanted to go home and sleep off my discomfort. I remember saying, “no”, we are going to University Hospital, a five minute drive.

She drove while I suffered in pain on the passenger side, unbuckled, trying to find a comfortable spot. We went straight into emergency where I was admitted with no delay. 

A technician performed an ECG/EKG and left. I felt hungry, nauseous and nervous, and under a lot of weight as my chest was getting tighter. What seemed like an eternity was probably a few minutes but the same technician came back and did the ECG/EKG again. This time, as soon as the machine was done, the technician ran off and a team consisting of a doctor and few staff members arrived. The emergency room doctor said, “Sir, you are having a heart attack.” 

"My angina limited my physical activities and I was worried about what would come next."

At that moment, I was relieved yet scared – I knew what was happening to me but did not know what to expect. …Before I knew it, I was taken to the operating room. I was found to have a full blockage in the right coronary artery and an angioplasty was performed with one stent. 

At the age of 38 years young, I had suffered a heart attack and lost six per cent of my heart muscle. …After spending a week in the hospital recovering and having my two-year old and six-year old see me in the hospital at the weakest point of my life, I was sent home. While recovering at home as per doctor’s orders, I experienced another episode of heavy chest while playing with my children on Christmas Eve. Tests showed that the stent was fully occluded – no blood flow was coming through the stent. I was no further ahead. My angina limited my physical activities and I was worried about what would come next. I certainly did not want to settle on limited physical condition with two young kids and my active lifestyle.

In early January, another angiogram was performed to investigate further. Something went wrong during the procedure and I went into cardiac arrest. …Things went from bad to worse when I found out there was nothing more the doctors could do besides giving me medication to deal with my occluded artery condition. I stayed in the hospital overnight and was discharged the next day with a referral to the Cardiac Rehabilitation and Secondary Prevention Program at St. Joseph’s Hospital. Not knowing what to expect from this program and in the state of uncertainty, fear and helplessness, I felt there was no hope. 

"I felt there was no hope." 

In February 2014, I went for the initial information session. I went alone. I sat through the session and observed everyone in the room. I realized I was not the only one with a cardiac condition, however, I felt that I did not belong as I was the youngest in the room. 

Soon after the information session, I went for my first assessment. There I met the friendly staff under the leadership of Dr. Neville Suskin and Dr. Dennis Humen. ….They were knowledgeable, compassionate and helpful in understanding my problems and addressing them with the proper care and therapy. I cannot stress enough the importance of receiving psychological help in the time of any critical moment in your life, never mind in a moment when you do not believe in anything or anyone. I am forever thankful to the psychology department, also at St. Joseph’s, under the leadership of Dr. Peter Prior who helped me get through a life changing event.

"My success in the pool is not only mine but also that of the Cardiac Rehabilitation and Secondary Prevention Program at St. Joseph’s."

My cardiovascular condition was taken care of by Dr. Humen who then referred my case to Dr. Christopher Buller at St. Michaels’s Hospital in Toronto. In June 2014, Dr. Buller, a specialist in occlusive coronary disease, performed an angioplasty on my fully occluded artery. Surgery took just over three hours and the result was successful. With the addition of four more stents, my artery was clear once again. Blood flow was restored to the bottom part of my heart’s right side, which meant I was no longer experiencing angina pain during strenuous activities. I could return to the pool and perhaps finish off what I started almost a year ago.

Ales Wittek with children at the swimming pool

On March 24, 2017, three years after my heart attack, my goal of attending the Ontario Masters Swimming Championships became a reality. I entered in six individual events for the 40-44 year age group and six team relay events. My results were more than satisfactory. I took home one gold, one silver and one bronze in individual events and three silvers in team relays. I contributed with 94 points to help our Middlesex Masters Swim team win second place overall.

My success in the pool is not only mine but also that of the Cardiac Rehabilitation and Secondary Prevention Program at St. Joseph’s. Thanks to this program, my two daughters were able to see their dad compete and enjoy what he loves. More importantly, the program made me realize that there is hope and not all is lost when it seems that way. I thank you for all you have done to help me be me again and enjoy life. 

With gratitude, 
Ales Wittek 

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