Spirit, character, strength

Outlook: At 21, John Gravel has undergone six heart surgeries, the latest July 30, but he keeps his focus on the positive, inspiring his cardiologist and his rehab class.

November 19, 2003|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

When Joe Spero walked into his cardiac rehabilitation class at Howard County General Hospital, the 51-year-old Vietnam veteran had no doubt that he'd be the youngest in the room.

Then he saw John Gravel working out with the other heart patients, some of whom are more than 60 years older than the athletic college student, who at age 21 has undergone six heart surgeries to repair congenital defects.

"I thought he was in high school," said Spero, who has suffered two heart attacks. "When I heard what his problem was, it humbled me. We see somebody like him that's been fighting all along, and it motivates all of us."

A junior premedical student at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., Gravel was born with three congenital heart defects that obstructed the flow of blood to and from his heart. He had his first surgery at 11 months old.

He's grown accustomed to responses of shock and surprise when people find out about his heart condition.

"I've grown up knowing that I was going to have to have another surgery at some point down the line," said Gravel, a 2001 graduate of Centennial High School in Ellicott City. "It's always a shock and never something you do easily, but having been through it before, it's something I can deal with without thinking about it, really."

Gravel travels to the University of Michigan for his operations and sees pediatric cardiologist Dr. Richard E. Ringel at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center for his annual cardiac physical.

"He's a fantastic person, his spirit is just enormous," Ringel said. "His interest in helping people is really inspiring."

After medical school, Gravel plans to specialize in treating adults with congenital heart defects. It's a relatively new area of study, created by the increasing number of children born with congenital defects who live to adulthood.

Gravel grew up with the knowledge that there were limits on his physical activity. As a boy, he played Little League baseball and was generally able to keep up with his friends. But as he grew older, it became more difficult.

"As it got bad, I noticed that I was getting tired a lot," he said. "And whenever that happened, there was normally an upcoming surgery."

He adapted to the changes and found other interests. When he stopped playing Little League, he took up bowling, and went on to participate in youth tournaments throughout the Northeast.

For years, Gravel has been an active member of an Internet support group for people with congenital heart defects, sharing his experiences in the hope of helping others cope with their condition.

"Teen-agers sometimes try to repress their chronic illness and ignore it in some ways," Ringel said. "He wanted to see if he could help others by reaching out; that says a lot about his character."

Since his most recent surgery nearly four months ago, Gravel has been recovering at his family's Ellicott City home. To build up his strength, he works out three times a week at a cardiac rehab class. At a session last week, Gravel and Spero joked before the warm-up.

"You missed some good music yesterday - Def Leppard, Nine Inch Nails," Spero said to his young friend. "People were falling off the treadmills."

Each of the nine heart patients wore a monitor at the waist, which allows nurses to track everyone's heart rates via computer in the workout room.

Class members began their customized exercise routines under the supervision of two nurses and two exercise physiologists.

Gravel and others started on the treadmill; the rest of the class bicycled, lifted weights or stretched.

Program coordinator Preeti Bahl remembers the reaction when Gravel joined the class.

"I think they were shocked," said Bahl, who had encouraged him to sign up for another rehab class with some younger senior citizens. But Gravel wasn't interested.

"He livens up the group," said exercise physiologist Tricia Krueger. "He's definitely not shy."

And he's popular with the ladies.

"He's a nice boy," said Belle Loll, who at 87 is the oldest in the class.

"A very nice young man, very polite," said Doris Newquist, 85.

Gravel's last surgery, July 30, was to replace his abnormally narrow aortic valve with a mechanical valve, the second surgical procedure to correct the damage.

His pulmonary valve was replaced with a donor valve in 1998. He takes medications daily to regulate his blood pressure and to thin his blood to prevent clotting around the mechanical valve. He also limits his salt and vitamin K intake.

Although the surgery forced Gravel to miss his fall semester in college, his schedule remains full. To stay on top of his premed requirements, he's taking physical chemistry, human anatomy and physiology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He tutors his fourth-grade neighbor in math, and he still bowls.

Gravel plans to return to Franklin & Marshall in January, but he said it will be a year before his recovery is complete.

Despite his heart condition, the surgeries and the restrictions on his life, he chooses to focus on the positive.

"If anything, it has made me stronger," he said. "It's given me an opportunity to meet so many amazing people, and taught me about life and what I want to do."

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