Don MacDonald spent years training and in 2013 he was ready to accomplish his dream. In a few months, he’d jump into the currents separating England and France to swim across the English Channel. Or so he thought.
During a routine jog to prepare for the swim, Don suffered a sudden cardiac arrest. He woke up from a chemically induced coma ten days later and 24 pounds lighter.
“I’m a marathon swimmer. I can swim 25 miles in 60-degree water or jog 5 miles without breaking a sweat,” Don recalled in disbelief. “How could I possibly have had a problem with my heart?”
Don was rushed to the emergency room where he was diagnosed with ventricular fibrillation, meaning his heart beats with rapid, erratic electrical impulses. Ventricular fibrillation is the most common cause of sudden cardiac death, and it can occur even in hearts that are professionally trained for endurance, like Don’s.[i]
While he was in a coma, his doctors implanted a Boston Scientific implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD), a small device that sits under the skin. The ICD device monitors Don’s heart rate to ensure it is beating at a normal rhythm. If Don’s heart rate gets too high, his risk of having another cardiac event increases. That is where the device steps in and will send an electrical shock to his heart to get it back to beating at a normal rhythm.
“This device, and my physicians who implanted it, saved my life,” Don said about the quick work from his team at Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital in Illinois. “I wouldn’t be here today without Dr. Christy, Dr. Kessler and the team at Good Shepherd.”
Although Don no longer competes in long-distance swimming competitions, his ICD has enabled him to get back in the water. He continues to swim about 3-4 times per week, up to a few thousand yards at a time. Don also kayaks for other long-distance swimmers, offering support and acting as a spotter.
In August, Don took on a 16-hour kayak trip off the coast of Massachusetts as his friend Doug McConnell swam between Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. He’ll likely never be able to complete his dream swim across the English Channel, but he has found new purpose in supporting his friends and remaining a part of the swimming community.
“Kayaking is easy, especially because I can feel confident in my heart health,” he said. “I still think about my dream of swimming the English Channel, but I’ve found value in helping other people achieve their dreams.”
Safety information for ICD systems can be found here.
[i] Mayo Clinic. Ventricular Fibrillation. Accessed August 2019. Available at < https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/ventricular-fibrillation/symptoms-causes/syc-20364523>.