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Back fast after heart surgery

Mark Hazelwood • Jul 4, 2014 at 7:27 AM

Pro Stock driver Anderson back behind the wheel following heart surgery

Greg Anderson was living life, feeling invincible as one of the top drivers in the NHRA’s Pro Stock division.

Though he knew it was a possibility, Anderson never believed his time would come. But then as the 2014 season began in February, Anderson found himself watching after recovering from heart surgery to repair the bicuspid valve.

“They discovered this problem, which was something I actually had since birth, about three years ago and wanted to operate then,” Anderson said Thursday at an NHRA press luncheon at Berry’s Restaurant in Norwalk.

The event was to promote the eighth annual Summit Racing Equipment Nationals, which began Thursday and runs through Sunday at Summit Motorsports Park in Norwalk. Anderson drives the Chevrolet Summit Racing car in the Pro Stock division.

“Basically for the last three years, every six months we’ve been taking a picture of the aneurysm in this artery behind the aortic valve,” Anderson said. “When it got to five centimeters, it was going to be time to replace it. Well, it never changed for these last three years, so I kind of got cocky about it and figured it was never going to change.”

But in early February, Anderson’s time had come.

“I got the call telling me it had expanded at a fast rate, and they feared it would burst,” he said. “And if that happens, you’re done. There is no chance to run to the hospital, you’re dead right then and there. So I really had no choice obviously. And my doctor assured me, these tests don’t lie. There was no more trying to fight with them and put them off, it was time.”

The blood that flows through the bicuspid valve should be a steady straight stream, but in Anderson’s case, the blood flow was going every which way. Over the years, it continually expanded the aorta.

Already facing the possible end of his racing career at the age of 53, the drama didn’t end for Anderson.

“They did the surgery (Feb. 6) in Charlotte, and it ended up being an eight hour ordeal,” Anderson said. “Here I had bled horribly in the surgery and it added another three hours to the process.

“It ended up being I was taken an anti-inflammatory called Meloxicam just for sore joints, and that is a very strong aspirin, and I didn’t know that. I lost so much blood I was completely out of it for days, and they were actually convinced I had a stroke. But after a few days, it turned out I was fine.”

The doctors put titanium plates that will stay inside Anderson for life, and told the driver he was looking at a recovery time of about three months. Anderson made it back in 11 weeks, though when he tried returning after nine weeks, he was rejected.

“I walked in there at nine weeks, and I had my speech prepared why I was ready to get back,” Anderson said. “And my doctor basically told me to get the heck out of his office. Not a chance I was getting back in the car until that was done.”

Pro stock vehicles can typically approach 220 mph. That alone can increase the heart rate of any driver, and once Anderson had a heart monitor on him during a race upon his return, that reality hit him hard.

“If I didn’t do what I do, maybe surgery could have been put off longer, but being a driver, it put a lot more strain,” he said. “We actually put a heart monitor on during a race run, and it shoots right up, and it’s kind of scary to see.

“You don’t even realize it, but it shoots up to 150 or 160 in that quarter mile run,” he added. “You think you are as calm as can be. So seeing those sharp rises in my heart is what ultimately led to my doctor telling me I was done getting in a race car any time soon.”

Anderson missed the first five races of the season during his recovery, and found himself worrying a lot more than about where he was going to be in the standings when he got back behind the wheel.

“It was definitely a lot of time for reflection, and you look at life differently and realize what’s important,” he said. “Foolishly, when I first found out, all I could think about was getting back in the race car. But you have to come to grips with the reality that this is life or death, and you may not be around if this doesn’t work out.”

Anderson enters Norwalk this weekend in 11th place in the Pro Stock standings. The top 10 qualify for the Countdown to the Championship, a six-race playoff to determine each year’s champion.

Anderson is a four-time Pro Stock champion, most recently in 2010, and owns two wins at Norwalk, where he knows there is always extra pressure for him to perform.

“When you see Summit all over the place on the walls and billboards, some look at that as pressure since I drive the Summit Racing car,” he said. “I don’t look at it that way at all. We love that, the extra added pressure. It’s a great racetrack with a lot of history here.

“To see Summit on the name of it makes it even better yet, and the Bader family is so great to work with,” Anderson added. “They keep the fans happy and keep them coming out to see the show. A lot of your track promoters aren’t like that, but it’s not like that because the Bader family gets it. They understand what you have to do to keep the fans coming.”

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