By Susan Bromley
Ken Dockery can’t say “thank you” enough, so he is showing his gratitude to the surgeon who saved his life by running a marathon in his honor.
The former Brandon Township resident, who discovered in 2002 he had a heart defect and subsequently underwent surgery at the Cleveland Clinic, first showed his appreciation for the facility by biking more than 500 miles from Pennsylvania to Ortonville in 2005 as a fundraiser. Two years later, he raised more money for the cardiac center by biking cross-country, 3,627 miles. Now, after a second heart surgery last year, Dockery is preparing to log 26.2 miles in Sweden, the native country of Dr. Gosta Pettersson, who performed both operations.
“Once you’ve crossed America, it’s hard to come up with something different, exciting,” said Dockery, 48. “Last spring, I started running again after rehab and got the idea of running the Stockholm Marathon in his honor.”
Pettersson, 72, has been a cardiac surgeon for 40 years, the last 17 years at the Cleveland Clinic. In January 2003, he performed the Ross Procedure on Dockery, replacing a faulty aortic valve with his own pulmonary valve, and then inserting a human cadaver pulmonary valve in its place.
Dockery was born with a bicuspid aortic valve, in which he had only two flaps instead of the customary three. The defect went undetected until he began suffering chest pains and had trouble breathing in 2002. The Ross procedure corrected the problem, but over time, the pulmonary valve that was now operating as an aortic valve became stretched and began leaking, enough to require a reverse Ross procedure. Pettersson, who was the first doctor to perform such a maneuver back in 2006, did the operation on Dockery in January 2015, putting in a mechanical valve, repairing the stretched pulmonary valve, and putting it back in its original position, removing the cadaver valve.
Neither the Ross procedure nor the reverse Ross procedure slowed down Dockery. If anything, it enables him to do more physical activity. Pettersson notes that a sick valve is a continuous exercising of the heart and has to do more work if it is leaking.
“The operation we did reduced stress on the heart, it did not increase it, and now he can use the capacity of his heart muscle to exercise instead,” said Pettersson. “That is really the simple principle of any valve surgery— when you get a good valve, you reduce the work the heart has to do… He has recovered well and has good heart function and it is good that he can exercise and take advantage of his heart.”
Dockery plans to do just that, although with running rather than bicycling, due to blood thinners he now must take and fear of internal bleeding if he should crash. The mechanical valve has another drawback as well.
“The man-made valve is really loud— even if you’re a couple feet away, it sounds like a clock inside me that never stops,” said Dockery. “I struggle with the sound, but its OK, my heart works really good.”
So good he decided to run the Stockholm Marathon.
Dockery previously ran the Cleveland Marathon in 2009 and has also competed in the Copper Man Triathlon in Copper Harbor in the Upper Peninsula. He began running again last spring and has been following a training schedule in preparation for the Stockholm race June 4. His latest long run was 20 miles last Saturday and he notes he only needs six (.2) more than that to get him to the finish line.
He runs every other day, averaging about 35 miles total per week, although his mileage last week was about 45. He notes he ran three half-marathons in training in just one week, 13.1 mile distances each time.
“The big difference between 13 miles and 26 is it becomes very painful right around the 18 mile mark,” laughed Dockery. “That will be the hard point. I just want to finish, I don’t want to set any records.”
He and his family, which includes his wife, Renee, and their children, Drew, 22, Kelly, 20, Erin, 19, and Derek, 16, will leave for Sweden June 1. They plan to stay with a Swedish exchange student they hosted in 2013, and will also visit Trondheim, Norway, the home of an exchange student they hosted in 2014. They will also make a stop in Iceland.
“It’s a major trip, but it may be our last family vacation with all the kids, they are getting older,” said Dockery.
The trip and running the marathon to honor his doctor, are items to cross off his bucket list.
“I’m just trying to live life to the fullest, like all of us should be— I’m not waiting to do all this stuff when I retire,” said Dockery, pastor of the Cityview Baptist Church in Cleveland. “I hope to inspire people and I’m excited to do this for my doctor.”
Pettersson will not be able to be there, but hopes Dockery will meet his daughter and son-in-law and is thrilled a marathon is being run on his behalf.
“It is a great honor for me and reassurance that I have done a reasonably good job,” said Pettersson.”I love to be able to help people. Particularly, I love to do complex operations and use all my experience that I have collected over the years to help people that have run out of options. It’s very much my practice to resolve complicated situations for people. Every time I can do that and come up with a solution and send him home and get him back to life, that is wonderful.”