Ray Rivera – AFib Awareness Month – The Camino de Santiago
Ray Rivera is 63 years old and he retired two years ago. He had open-heart surgery at 61 years old. He blogs about his heart journey at My So-Called New Life. He shares his story in honor of AFib Awareness Month.
For about five years now, I have been walker. My girlfriend asked me to walk with her one day and I’ve been doing it ever since. A walk of 10 to 15 miles is not that big a deal anymore.
One of the things that walking got us into was doing the Camino de Santiago, a series of very long pilgrimages throughout Spain. The first one we did was about 500 miles over five weeks. Prior to my heart surgery in 2016 we had walked over a thousand miles through Spain over a few years.
Because of this, I naturally believed that I had a very strong heart – unfortunately, I didn’t. On the day I saw the surgeon who would recommend open-heart surgery, I asked if I could do the surgery after another long walk in Spain that I had planned. He said it wasn’t a good idea. Beside these walks being an important part of what I enjoyed doing, the bigger picture was that my heart didn’t function well and I should do something about it. I planned the surgery for a few weeks after our talk.
After the surgery, the hardest thing for me to do - and I imagine for most heart surgery patients - was walk. I could only walk a few feet at a time and for less than a minute, usually. But along with getting better, I wanted to do the things I did prior to surgery. One difficult thing to do right after surgery is catch your breath. One is always out of breath. Besides walking after surgery, breathing exercises are important. I stuck to my breathing and walking routines every day.
After a couple of weeks, the possibility of walking another Camino soon became, at least to me, a real possibility. My plan was to walk a bit over 200 miles through France and Spain six months after surgery. These walks involve lots of hills, uneven terrain, and just about every walking condition possible. Each day would be between 10 and 18 miles of walking. That was my goal.
During recovery, I would challenge myself to see how much more each day I could add to my walks. Nothing dangerous, just a bit more challenging. I always stayed hydrated and monitored my vital signs. By the time it came for me to do the Camino, I was walking 10 to 13 miles a day at one time, without much of a problem.
I did the Camino without any real problems as now my heart and lungs were working together well. Things that weren’t so easy before my surgery were now easier with my new heart. I kept up my recovery routine when I got home and six months later I went back to Spain and walk another 200 plus miles. On both of these Camino, I was almost always in better shape than most other walkers. This was important to me because after heart surgery we think we may never be the same. I am living proof that we can be much better.