Russell Smith

Today, I passed five years since my open heart surgery at Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago. In 2017, I shared details on my preparation for the surgery from a planning standpoint. In this piece, I reflect on the mental, emotional and physical preparation.

I share these thoughts because a few friends, knowing of this anniversary, have asked me. And they kindly suggested my thoughts might help someone else preparing for a similar life situation. Hopefully so.

1. Motivation

From a certain perspective, working to prepare for the surgery came quite easily. I had a wonderful wife, a two-year old daughter, and our second daughter was born three weeks before my surgery. Whenever training felt hard, or I was undergoing an uncomfortable pre-surgery test, my thoughts returned to them, shifting my awareness from the present to a vision of a better, healthier future with my family. That usually put a smile on my face and made the hassle of the moment disappear. So, I had a lot to live – and live well – for.


2. Physical

My heart problem had prevented me from participating in most sports growing up. But after college, I wanted to do more physically. So I began working out with “Maximum Bob” Whelan at Whelan Strength Training in Washington, DC. Moving back to Louisville, I remained active, exercising in a gym two to four days every week, mostly focused on breathing and posture, and walking our dog Teddy an average of five miles per day. 

In early 2014, when my cardiologist expressed his view that I should consider the surgery, I ramped up my exercise. I began seeing  a physical therapist, Quinn Henoch (now in California) and having a massage on alternating weeks. I returned to strength training under the care of Ryan Brown (now an agent with Re/Max Premier Properties), and Eric Hammer who had me exercising five days a week. By the time of my surgery, I felt as healthy and strong as ever. That put me in good stead to recover well from the surgery.

3. Mental and Emotional

At the conclusion of the surgery suitability tests, the doctors informed me of the pre-discharge mortality rate of about 2%. For a day or two afterward, I focused on that number. But soon a cardiologist friend suggested I look at it differently: “That’s a 98% success rate. I will take that investment every single day!” That statement hugely improved my perspective on the surgery.

Next, I spoke a few times with my old DC trainer, “Max Bob.” Bob nicknamed me “Brave Heart” at the gym, and I found it useful to speak with someone so determined and tough. He emphasized that the surgery would prove good for me – it would set me up for good health for many years to come.

In the months before the surgery, I also read a lot. The books included: the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, The Passionate State of Mind by Eric Hoffer, The Revelation of St. John the Divine, A Guide for the Perplexed by E.F. Schumacher (recalling the Moses Maimonides’s book of the same title), a couple short Wendell Berry books, Wallace Stegners’s Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs, a couple Westerns, and A Visit from the Goon Squad (a gift from a great college friend). Why these books? I don’t recall having a reading plan, but a couple (the Westerns) reminded me of the adventure of life, which I could more fully embrace after surgery. Others helped me consider some of the more ultimate questions in life. The Stegner and Berry books --- with their themes of place and permanent roots – gave me confidence that I belonged in Louisville in this next, after-surgery stage of life. While seemingly without a theme, I credit this reading list for preparing, but not over-fixating, me for the surgery and the challenge of recovery.

Finally, mentally, I wanted to have things to look forward to after surgery, both play and work. My father-in-law and brother-in-law batted around summer fly-fishing destinations. I worked on my real estate license class, and gave a bit of thought to what direction I wanted to take there.



In general, I recovered and have done well since the surgery. By January 2015, I’d begun cardiac rehab, which continued through March. There, I began a personal “test” of my cardiovascular health that I continue to perform each quarter – walking 4 miles in 60 minutes. Today, with enormous gratitude to my doctors and health team, I feel stronger and healthier than at anytime in my life. Every week, I do the following: yoga with Laurie LeCompte of YogaBaum (see me in action here), strength train with Ethan Wilson of PeakFitness, and play tennis. Every other week, I do physical therapy with Krista McBride of Complete Physical Therapy, especially to work on my posture, breathing and breathing capacity. I try to get a massage every few weeks at A Therapeutic Touch, too. A few times a year, I check in with Natalie Guarnaschelli, my nutritionist. As I get into my mid-40s, my heart health depends a great deal on forcing myself to stay active and keep moving. And every so often, I still talk with “Max Bob” for continued inspiration!