May 24

Chicago Man Embraces Each Day Rising Above Heart Failure

A successful Chicago restaurateur with a big extended family and longtime close friends, Mark Cecola leads an active life. But he pauses to enjoy simple pleasures – casual dinners, interesting conversation and laughter.
Because he also lives with heart failure, Cecola appreciates each moment and is determined not to let the condition sideline him.
“You’ve got to wake up thinking: Each day is a big deal,” said the 39-year-old Cecola. “It’s hard to translate that without sounding like a greeting card.”

He was born with subaortic stenosis, a heart defect that limits blood flow. Hours after birth, he was whisked by medical helicopter to another hospital for surgery. He’s since had four corrective surgeries, including one by the famed Dr. Denton Cooley of Houston. Afterward, as a teenager and young adult, Cecola said he enjoyed “smooth sailing” and a fairly normal life.
Then, in his early 30s, a flu-like virus struck.
“It kind of shut down my whole body, organ by organ,” Cecola said. The virus took a rough toll on his already vulnerable heart, and Cecola began experiencing heart failure.
Doctors placed a pacemaker and an implantable cardioverter defibrillator, known as an ICD, in Cecola. Last year the ICD detected an abnormally fast heart rate and cardiac arrest and gave his heart a powerful electrical shock to restore a normal rhythm. The shocks repeated three or four times.
“I thought I was dead. I thought my heart just stopped,” he said, recalling the frightening and lonely experience that occurred in a parking garage.
Cecola later learned that the initial shock was so strong it loosened one of the leads on his implanted defibrillator. He now has a new pacemaker and defibrillator.
“It was a little rough out of the gate. There was some anxiety of that shock,” he said. “Little by little, I got past that.”
The staff members at his pacemaker clinic were especially helpful. Meanwhile, his cardiologist, Dr. Burhan Mohamedali, suggested that he volunteer with the American Heart Association.
Cecola has become an ambassador in the association’s “Rise Above Heart Failure” campaign. He shares his story so that others with heart failure will realize they, too, can lead active lives while managing their condition.
“The bright thing is that I’m here,” he said. “I’ve been able to do a lot.”
Cecola oversees a growing Italian restaurant chain, Armand’s, which began with his grandfather’s original restaurant in1956.
Cecola rides an exercise bike and walks on a treadmill to stay physically active. He has given up drinking alcohol. Although Cecola could eat out as often as he likes, he now cooks for himself and pays close attention food labels to control his intake of fats, sugars and sodium.
“Sodium is a killer,” he said. “You just have to watch the label.”
Cecola urges other heart failure survivors to do the same and to maintain a positive outlook. He cherishes seemingly small things like time spent with friends and family or enjoying a cup of coffee while reading a newspaper.
“Not until you really grasp the concept of life and death, do you realize what a gift it is,” he said. "I'm on bonus time, and I might as well appreciate every minute of it.”
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