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Close to his heart: Almost two years after surgery, Steve Lee is ready to jog Bloomsday

Steve Lee demonstrates how to use a heart condition pilow at Spokane Convention Center on Saturday, May 4, 2019. He is jogging his 40th bloomsday after recovering from heart surgery. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Steve Lee demonstrates how to use a heart condition pilow at Spokane Convention Center on Saturday, May 4, 2019. He is jogging his 40th bloomsday after recovering from heart surgery. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

The mining structures and distant hills that peeked over the brick building rooftops of Butte gave Steve Lee a welcome feeling in his hometown.

It was during a 2017 trip to Butte, a month after he ran the 2017 Bloomsday for the 38th time, that the Clarkston resident felt off.

“All of a sudden, I had trouble breathing,” he said. “I go, ‘Something is wrong.’ ”

Perhaps it’s because he had a strong cardiovascular system from his 40 years of running that he didn’t realize it at the time: He was having a heart attack.

A 4-centimeter hole had split the lining of his heart, and blood was pumping into his lung, said Lee’s cardiac surgeon at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center, Dr. Justin Reeves.

“Not many people survive what he survived,” Reeves said. “Very few people go back to a high level of functioning.”

But less than a year later, Lee walked the 2018 Bloomsday Race. And for 2019, the 67-year-old is ready to jog the way through his 40th appearance in the race.

Coping with his heart

After feeling short of breath, Lee went to the ER in Butte, where nurses “slapped me into a bed and put in a stent” and told him the news, he said.

“I was kind of shocked because it’s like, “No, I’m a runner!’ ” he said. “We’re not supposed to have problems like that.”

As Lee told his family and friends what he was facing, he said they were met with disbelief, because they knew he’d been running for 40 years.

“It shows how genetics plays into it,” Lee said.

Lee was born in Butte. He took up running while working for the city of Lewiston in the late 1970s.

“All of a sudden, I got a desk job and I started gaining weight,” he said. So in 1979 he completed his first fun run in Lewiston. He was hooked on the crowds, the sweat and the sore muscles. He later became an accountant for Washington State University, where he spent the majority of his career. He continued to run to stay in shape.

Lee was still in disbelief when he was sent from the ER in Montana to Sacred Heart in Spokane for heart surgery.

Reeves met Lee in the intensive care unit.

“He was on a lot of meds to help his heart pump and to keep him breathing,” Reeves said. “He was a very positive person. From the beginning, he told me how active he was and how he enjoyed the outdoors and running in particular.

“I could see it in his eyes before we even operated: He had a spark in his eyes to get back to where he was.”

Lee said he always remained “kind of positive about it. I never thought about the bad consequences.”

Reeves operated on Lee on June 19, 2017, to “essentially patch up that big hole,” he said.

Recovery with positivity

There’s a red pillow that Lee holds close to his heart.

The pillow is shaped like a heart. On it, Reeves wrote in Sharpie, “Keep up the good work. You’ll be running in no time!”

“This story all started when Dr. Reeves left me that message about running,” Lee said.

The heart pillow is familiar to anyone who’s undergone heart surgery. Holding or hugging it serves as a way to prevent the patient from using his or her arms and risking ripping their stitches, Lee said.

“You have to be careful standing up. You have to use your legs. Not your arms at all. Because you will possibly split the stitches,” he said.

But from the time Lee left the surgery room, it’s been about “rehab and patient motivation,” Reeves said.

Lee spent almost a week in the ICU before leaving the hospital, and he began rehab at St. Luke’s Rehabilitation Institute in Spokane. He spent two weeks in rehab, but when he was done he could still only walk 10 minutes at a time, he said.

A Fitbit strapped around his wrist let him set goals and track how long he could walk. By October, Lee visited his doctor for a checkup.

“He seemed pleased with the progress,” Lee said, “and I said I’m going to walk every day. That’s my job.”

It wasn’t long before Bloomsday 2018 registration rolled around, and Lee signed up.

Back to fitness

One of his first thoughts after crossing the finish line in 2018 was: “Oh, it was a lot easier than I thought,” Lee said.

Less than a year after his surgery, Lee had walked the 12-kilometer route in 2 hours and 19 minutes.

It’s quite a bit slower than his fastest time running Bloomsday: 48:50 in 1983, placing him in the top 700, he said.

But 2018 was one of his most memorable.

Lee is now ready to jog Bloomsday on Sunday. On April 27 in Lewiston, he jogged a fun run for the first time since his surgery, so he knows he can do it.

“… It’s going to be a slow pace,” he said. “I’ll probably do a slight jogging pace. I’ll take it easy on the hills.”

The Bloomsday organizers still gave Lee a good spot – the yellow group – which Lee said is because he’s built up a reputation for running it fast.

Lee isn’t changing any of his habits, he said, which means he’ll spend Saturday night with running friends and loading up on carbohydrates at the Old Spaghetti Factory. Lee’s go-to order: tomato sauce pasta topped with mizithra cheese and spumoni ice cream for dessert.

Already, Lee knows he’ll run Bloomsday 2020, he said.

On Saturday, Lee carried his red pillow to the Bloomsday trade show. He held it close to his heart and looked down at Reeves’ note.

“His prediction,” Lee said, “came true.”

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