Avid runner and extreme marathoner Bart Filipiak is a 46-year-old who can barely believe he’s had a heart condition for the past 15+ years. As a kid, Bart always knew he wanted to be an Air Force pilot. He earned his private pilot’s license by the time he graduated college and went on to join the Air Force shortly thereafter. Sadly, his health screening upon entry revealed a very mild case of mitral valve prolapse – one of the most common types of valve disease affecting up to 8 million Americans a year. Crushing his dreams of becoming a military pilot didn’t stop Bart who went on to enjoy a successful Air Force career in communications engineering, followed by his current civilian career in wireless telecommunications.
Fighting the Middle-Aged Spread
When Bart was nearing age 40, he noticed he’d started putting on some extra weight and wasn’t in his best shape. He adopted a Paleo diet, lost some weight and signed up for a “Couch to 5K” event that helped him train for his first 3.1-mile race since high school. Soon thereafter, Bart’s running hobby really took off. In the years that followed, Bart and some friends from a local fitness and fellowship group trained for event after event – of increasing duration and intensity. By 2020, Bart had participated in four 50K running/endurance events that took him up and down the mountains of Vermont, to the top of Mount Mitchell in western North Carolina, and through Pilot Mountain and into Hanging Rock – each race lasting anywhere from 6 to 12 hours through rain, snow and wild obstacle courses meant to test his endurance and strength.
Uncovering a Severe Case of Mitral Valve Prolapse
Through all this, Bart’s heart never wavered. He barely gave it a second thought – until about a year ago when he had a single unexplained episode of chest pain while sitting behind a desk at work. While the emergency department ruled out a heart attack and diagnosed him with reflux or indigestion, he decided to check in with a cardiologist. WakeMed Heart & Vascular’s Dr. Padma Hari performed a thorough evaluation – half expecting everything to be normal based on his extremely active lifestyle, but instead found his mild case of mitral valve prolapse had progressed to a severe case. She explained that if he didn’t have surgery within a few years, he would go into heart failure.
Bart was shocked – he remembers telling her that surely she’d made a mistake because there was no way he could participate in all the crazy athletic events he’d completed in the past several years with a severe heart condition. She performed one more test, a transesophageal echocardiogram, to confirm the diagnosis and referred him to WakeMed Heart & Vascular structural heart surgeon Dr. Bryon Boulton. Dr. Boulton reassured Bart that his condition was fully treatable with a valve repair procedure. “I was hesitant to have surgery and initially planned to put it off,” explains Bart. “After a month or so, I went back in for a second consult where Dr. Boulton explained everything to me from an engineering perspective – which I really appreciated. He assured me that with a successful procedure, and adherence to the prescribed rehab and recovery guidance, I would be back to my racing events within a year, so I went ahead and scheduled my surgery so I could get it done and move onto recovery.”
A Caring and Responsive Team
On November 16, 2020 Bart had a minimally-invasive valve repair surgery at the WakeMed Heart Center. He relates the details of his 3-night hospital stay. “Everyone on my care team – from the surgeons to the nursing staff on every unit were fantastic. They were so caring and responsive – and when I pushed that call button, they all made me feel like I was their only patient.”
Since his surgery, Bart’s recovery has been painless, and he’s eager to get back to his extreme events. The first week after surgery, Bart took short walks three to four times a day. A month later, he was up to four miles a day and counting down the days until he can finish his next race event, get his pilot’s license back – and take up a new type of racing called ‘adventure racing,’ which is a combination of biking, canoeing, hiking and running – using only a map and compass.
“I like to do ‘epic stuff’ – I try to remember that I’m only going to live once, so I want to take full advantage of my youth and health while I have it,” Bart explains. He’s planning a 44-mile run in the Grand Canyon in 2022 and will complete his next 50K trail race this fall at Table Rock in Western NC.