[Dr. Girardi] said he was going to work very hard to get me back to where I wanted to be. He knows how to talk to athletes, so I told him, 'Let's get this done.'
Peter Ciaccia, 67, is the last person you'd expect to need open-heart surgery. The former President of Events for New York Road Runners and Race Director of the New York City Marathon for 18 years is dedicated to fitness and a long-time distance runner. After retiring at the close of 2018, Peter was looking forward to training again for various races, with his sights set on running the 2020 TCS New York City Marathon.
But his body had other ideas: a large aneurysm had been developing in his ascending aorta — the first part of the body's largest artery and a vital conduit for healthy blood flow. Thanks to the cardiothoracic surgery team's expertise at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, Peter is back outside again, logging miles and hoping to take on the 2021 TCS New York City Marathon.
As a race director, he was no stranger to the heart ailments that can strike endurance athletes. "I've seen this unfold in front of my own eyes. Sadly, there have been fatalities in marathons, even at the professional level," states Peter. The running community suffered the loss of Ryan Shea at the 2007 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in New York. "People often have underlying conditions they don't know they have."
In summer 2019, Peter began training for a 24-hour distance-running relay that would take place that October.
"I was feeling fine and had no indication anything was wrong with me, other than some lightheadedness after doing pullups at the gym," he explains. When he saw his general practitioner — who is a runner herself — for a physical exam, she was concerned. "I had been more fatigued than usual, and she said she didn't like the way I looked."
She listened to his heart, took a chest x-ray, and recommended he get an echocardiogram — an ultrasound test that shows how the heart is beating.
Upon reviewing the test results, his doctor gave him a call. She told him to stop training because they discovered an aortic aneurysm — a 6 cm bulge in his ascending aorta, which was confirmed by a 3D imaging test at a hospital. Surgery was recommended sooner than later. Peter said he wanted only the best heart surgeon in the country to handle the procedure. His doctor referred him to one of the world's leading cardiac surgeons, who happens to be right in New York City: Dr. Leonard Girardi, Chair of the Cardiothoracic Surgery Department at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center.
Peter learned that if he didn't have surgery to repair the aneurysm, it could burst, which at worst could be fatal. Other results could leave him on a regimen of daily medications, and he would need to curtail his activity level significantly. Peter, who has been active his whole life, did not want to impact his fitness lifestyle.
"I wanted to get back to running and the activity level I have always been used to," he says. "Dr. Girardi explained the surgery I needed in a way that was very comforting and easy to understand. He said he was going to work very hard to get me back to where I wanted to be. He knows how to talk to athletes, so I told him, 'Let's get this done.'"
Peter had the surgery just before Labor Day. During the procedure, Dr. Girardi made an incision in his chest and repaired the aortic aneurysm by replacing the aortic valve using a natural valve made from cow heart tissue. Peter stayed in the hospital's Cardiac Care Unit for several days and then the Cardiac Stepdown Unit, walking at least twice a day up and down the hospital hallways. He raves about the exceptional level of care from the nursing staff. Respiratory therapists worked with him to improve his lung function, and physical therapists supported his recovery.
Once home, Peter walked every day to regain his strength and stamina, building up to over 6 miles daily. By late November, he learned he could get back to training. He's running again and now incorporating weight sessions into his daily workout routine.
"I am back to my active lifestyle, and I feel great!" he notes. Today his chest scar is barely noticeable, and his only drug is a baby aspirin each day.
Unfortunately, the 2020 TCS New York City Marathon needed to be canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so Peter is now looking to run his beloved race in 2021. He has a special message for other runners, who often put off seeing a doctor because of their busy lives or because it might interfere with training for their next race: "I want to use my experience as an opportunity to raise awareness of an important issue, especially for runners. We all think we're infallible, but we're not. Everyone needs to have a complete checkup on an annual basis and know their family’s medical history. It could save your life. And to all those planning to run New York in 2021, I would like to say: We WILL have clearance on the roadway! Hope to see you at the start line."