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Marcus McCleery, the 372-pound version of him, had nothing to look forward to. Suffering from atrial fibrillation, an abnormally rapid beating of his heart that would leave him exhausted, he was so depressed that he did little more than sleep, eat and sag into a basement sofa and play video games until 2 or 3 in the morning.
"I was knocking on 400 pounds' door - when you lay on the couch all the time and feel defeated," he said.
Medication didn't work. Neither did an earlier surgery to correct his heart. Then, three years ago, a cardiologist at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis performed an ablation, searing away tissue on the heart that interferes with its normal rhythms.
In the past decade, catheter ablation to correct atrial fibrillation has gone from a novel approach to mainstream treatment. Doctors at Abbott Northwestern's Minneapolis Heart Institute alone perform the procedure more than 700 times a year.
With McCleery's normal heart rhythm restored, he had no more excuses. It was time to get off the couch.
At first, Dr. Bill Katsiyiannis told him, start small. "Just move 15 minutes a day."
"I can do that," McCleery recalls.
Before long, 15 minutes became 20, 20 became 30, 30 became 60. A friend who ran in triathlons convinced McCleery to come watch.
Slowly, surely, a life began to change. McCleery started eating better, smarter. Walking morphed into running -- then swimming, bicycling and kayaking. In a year, McCleery was down to 186 pounds. After three years, he's a fit and muscular 205 pounds, running in triathlons and half-marathons and oozing confidence. He has even launched a website to help inspire others who, like him, have lost hope.
"I got a gift," he said of that procedure at the Minneapolis Heart Hospital at Abbott Northwestern. "There were no more excuses."
Impossible to exercise
McCleery said he was a two-sandwich-from-McDonald's guy, someone for whom a single Big Mac and fries was not enough. It was not surprising, then, when the pounds started piling on. Yet, his atrial fibrillation (AF) made it nearly impossible to exercise. Millions of people suffer from AF, which can lead to increased risk of stroke and heart failure.
Still, he had tried different diets, and lost weight -- only to regain it. He had even had surgery once before, after which he tried to do more healthy things, said his wife, Rebecca. But, after a while, his atrial fibrillation came back.
Doctors then tried different medications, and thought they got it under control again. But, after almost a year, his heart again returned to its erratic and exhausting rhythm. And McCleery just kept getting bigger.
Then Katsiyiannis tried a new medication -- and the ablation.
Sometimes, as Katsiyiannis said, technology "kind of clears away the brush" to give people "a full head of steam."
So it was with ablation, a treatment in which doctors pinpoint and obliterate extra tissue on the heart that interferes with its normal electrical signals and causes it to beat rapidly and inefficiently.
There are key areas of the upper chambers of the heart, the atria, where abnormal signals are generated. Using a catheter-based device, Katsiyiannis cauterized those areas during a three-hour procedure. McCleery was out of the hospital the next day.
McCleery's heart rhythm returned to normal. But McCleery was leery. He'd been burned by dashed hopes before.
"Dr. Katsiyiannis said, 'Go live your life.' But it was still a little while before Marcus decided to make the change. He still hesitated," Rebecca McCleery said. "Then he went in for another checkup."
Said McCleery: "I asked him, 'Do you want me to lose weight?' He said, 'No, I want you to move, just move, for 15 minutes a day.' "
So, that's what he did. Then, he joined a health club. But the trainer there told him not to run or go hard until he weighed less than 300 pounds. "So, I went easy for the first 72 pounds," he said.
Once below 300 pounds, McCleery started running 50 paces, then walking 25. Then, it was 75 and 10. Then, he ran.
He eliminated processed sugars and alcohol from his diet. His waist, once 57 inches, began shrinking.
"There is no doubt this ablation procedure changed his life," said Matt Lewis, McCleery's best friend. "I would get phone calls from Marcus when he was in a fibrillation. You could tell from the tone of his voice, he was just so depressed."
Lewis, who had also started eating healthier and exercising, became active in triathlons. He wanted McCleery to come watch.
"He was starting to get on a healthier track, but he was still very heavy at the time," Lewis said. "I wanted him to come, to see the atmosphere. I said, 'You're going to do this with me next year.' "
Rebecca made changes, too. Although she was not heavy, she said she wasn't fit. She promised to do as much as she could, although had no plans to run. Rebecca McCleery just completed her first Twin Cities Marathon.
McCleery has been transformed. His 57-inch waist is now 34 inches. Hardly a week goes by that he is not racing, riding or doing something active. His atrial fibrillation has not returned.
McCleery now runs his own business out of his home in New London. And, he said, he hopes to serve as an example to others. He has just launched a website: move15minutesaday.com.
In this holiday season, he said the one thing he is most thankful for is wellness. "To have a well mind, body and spirit is all I could hope for! I am a better man because of this journey! I am a better friend. I am a better family member."
James Walsh • 612-673-7428