Heart problems

This page is dedicated to the heart problems I suffered from 2008 and finally overcame in 2011. Listed below are selected events shown in chronological order.

Summary

After years of heart problems, fighting against the odds to come back. After a heart surgary two months prior the race. After a final sprint when a medal seemed out of reach, I cross the finish line of the World Championship final. I collapsed in my boat, breathing heavily. Totally exhausted and in so much pain but for the first time in years I felt completly at ease. In that moment I didn´t mind that the results from the photo finish were delayed. "I did it! I finally beat this thing" 30 min later I find out that I had won a World Championship Bronze Medal. Despite being in third place, I felt like a winner!

Along the way I have heard doctors telling me I should quit, even that I could die. Some telling me that an operation could most likely help me but I would never get one. Others that an operation would be no use. Heard snide and ignorant comments that my heart problems are probably just mental or that you should get a high heart rate if you´re working hard enough, even though 260-300 bpm is far from normal. Through it all I refused to give up, when everything looked hopeless, I kept going.

My advice to anyone experiencing heart problems or any other health issue. Take it seriously, see a doctor, take a second opinion and if needed a third, forth, fifth and even tenth opinion. Find out what your options are. And most important, even if you may be at your weakest, be strong and fight!

Special Thanks

My deepest gratitude to Fariborz Tabrizi and everyone at Arytmicenter in Stockholm

also Ronnie Willenheimer, Fredrik Fogner & IF Skadeförsäkringar

Thank you for providing me with a second chance and the opportunity to continue my rowing career

Fall 2008 - "Something is not right"

In 2008 I noticed that there was something wrong with my heart rate. After tough sessions it acted weird. It could go from 70 to 150 and back in a flash of a second. Each time it occured I got very tiered, even though I was able to train it would take me a few days before I felt normal again. At the hospital the doctors could view and record the problem on EKG. They said that it was an electrical defect in my heart. A cardiologist in Helsingborg told me that an operation was an option, but because my problem, according to her, wasn´t a life threatening condition it would probably take a long time before I could get one. Even if I got an operation it was a low percentage chance that it would work. When I got the news about a distant and likely unsuccessful operation, the problems had not occured for a few weeks. I decided to wait and see.

Season 2009 - "Great season"

The 2009 season went all and all great despite struggling with sickness from time to time. Recovering from a cold I was only 3.5 seconds from Olympic Finalist, Lassi Karonen in a 2k race. I finished 2nd at the National Championships in both the 2k and 500m in the Single Scull (Lassi Karonen won both distances). At the World Coastal Championship I was in my best shape I´ve ever been and I had high expectations. In the final, a critical crash at the start seamed to spoil all chances to get a good result. I was dead last (24th place) and over 300m behind the leaders.... But something just clicked - I just would not accept this fate. I pulled with pure determination and my focus was absolute. I passed rivals, one after one, never slowing down. As I passed the finish line I had passed all but two, taking a World Championship Bronze Medal. Only 10 seconds away from Gold. For this effort I was awarded the title "Rower of the Year" from the Swedish Rowing Federation. To this day I´m positive that I would have won the race if it wasn´t for the crash. Future was looking promising.

Crashed at the start but something clicked and I gave it my all to get back, never slowing. Went from 24th to 3rd place

Spring training 2010 - "Problems are back"

During spring training and early season it was clear that the problems had returned. Again the pulse was very irregular, causing me again to get very tired after each time. Also took my a few days each time before I got my full strength back. This affected my training and was very annoying. Contacted Doctors. Again my problems were monitored on EKG. Test would be issued.

July 10th 2010 - "Death scare"

 Just completed a 15k distance row and decided to do some 500m pieces. Just me and one other rower from my club at the lake.

So far the season had been a total let down. The irregular heart beats and the tiredness that followed affected me more than I thought. The races of 2010 so far had been average at best. Just couldn´t seam to get to 100%. I was far from the form I had in 2009. The National Sprints were coming up though, despite that I wasn´t in top shape, I thought I had a good shot at winning. The race was also televised in Swedish Television which meant good PR if I rowed well. But I had to get the pace up.

I started the 500m pieces...

//

... My chest´s pounding like crazy. For the second time my heart rate monitor shows 260 bpm. "That can´t be right", I think dismissively (My max heart rate was determined to be about 180 bpm a few years earlier). When the heart monitor 30 seconds later showed more reasonable numbers I decided to do one final 500m piece. "I need the training. Must just be something wrong with the watch", I reassured myself.

300m into the piece my chest starts pounding again, more brutal this time. All the power in my muscles - gone. Everything starts turning black. I grab my riggers and my last thought was "Don´t flip" 

//

When I gain control I´m not sure how long I was out. "Five minutes, maybe 10?" Still very weak and dizzy. Heart monitor showed 170 bpm. Very high for not doing nothing at all. The launch was about 2k away, so I had to get back somehow. I started to row slowly, but after five strokes I had to stop. Heart rate up at 250 and eyesight was fading. I start rowing 2-3 strokes and resting in between. The 2k took forever. Heart rate pending between 160 and 250. Felt like my heart wanted to punch through my chest. When I finally got back to shore my heart rate stabilized at 140 (my rest pulse is 37 bpm) and stayed there for another 6 hours. 

July 17-18th 2010 - "National Sprints, Malmö"

 Probably operation in September the doctors said. Even though the doctors weren´t very keen on me training, they didn´t forbid it.

"Don´t take any unnecessary risks".

I didn´t say anything about I was still considering competing in the National Sprints the upcoming weekend. In my (although slightly twisted) mind all the safety crew surrounding the course would make it one of the safest place to pass out.

The race took place in the city center of Malmö. A new way of attracting media and audience. Because of the narrow canal the races started with a time trial ranking and then head to head elimination round. I was competing in the Mens Single and Mens Double with my team mate Andreas. First day was Time Trials and Quarter Finals. Got 2nd best time in the Single and 3rd in the Double. Got trough to the semifinals in both without any trouble. But I was tired. Too tired. The next day had four tough races in a short amount of time. I was afraid that the short rest would lead to the same issues I had the week before. "Can´t win if I pass out". I talked to Andreas about it (who also hade made it to the semifinal in the Mens Single) and I said that I at best had two all-out races in me. If I give it all in the two semi-finals I would most likely suffer from the heart problems. We decided that we would give it all in the Singles and dismiss the Double. With some luck we would be both in the Single final.

Raceday - Semi

I made it trough to the final. Barely. Led the whole way but my rival Mikael Werner, a former champion sculler with speed, made a huge sprint at the end. He caught a crab a few strokes from the finish line. I may have pulled through anyway but it would have been close. I had been lucky... and my heart really pounding.... Andreas missed the final with a fraction of a second after a heroic finish in his semi. We cruised through the Double Semi 40 min later. Got a bad rep for this decition, but for me it was the only possible choice. Andreas who still was really bummed out about his single-semi wasn´t very happy with the "row bye" but respected my wish.

Final

Changed tactics to the final. Quick start but not 100%, then "Do or Die" after half way. 

"Keep to the plan - Don´t mind the other guy"

//

 Quick start. Got a slight lead. Then my rival, Urban, made his move and took over half a boat length. Felt tired. Too tired. Half way mark. "10 hard" Creamed up the pace and power. Took back some ground. "10 hard". Got up to even, and maybe a slight lead. "10 hard". Got half a length. Urban had no response. I kept the power passed the finish line. I screamed out with joy but also with great relief. I did it. Despite the heart problems I was Swedish Champion

Screaming with join and out of relief. Despite the Heart Problems I was Swedish Champion

July 21th 2010 - "You could die"

Back at the doctors. They wanted do some more tests before they decide how they would solve my heart problem. Find the spot where they should burn (using laser) in my heart. The doctors had my confidence. Carefully I asked my doctor what he thought about training and intervals while I was waiting for an operation.

"Honestly you shouldn´t do it unless you have a fully equipped medic team by your side. Worst case is that your heart could get such a high flimmer that your heart wont pump out blood at all".

"Which means??", I asked. 

"Well... that you'll die".

I didn´t have the stomach to tell him that I competed and won the National Sprints two days prior to my visit. I decided not to tell anyone about this. "They would never let me near a boat again...ever"

July - September 2010 - "More tests... no operation"

Tests upon tests. I did every test in the book, multiple times. Still the verdict was. "Yes, there is something wrong with your heart but we must do more tests to figure out how to proceed" Frustrating. I decided that I would compete at the World Coastal Championship in October, despite that I hadn´t got the problems solved. I got Bronze last year and wanted to medal again, maybe even win. I convinced myself that my shape still was good and the longer distance (equals lower heart rate) would mean less strain for my heart.

 October 21st-23rd 2010 - "Istanbul"

In short, the World Coastal Rowing Championship 2010 in Istanbul was an utter disappointment. Started good in the heats where the first five qualify to the A-final. After 2000m I was in 2nd place just behind young Italian rower, Giuseppe Alberti. As we approached the first turning point I decided to test Alberti and did 30 hard strokes. I pulled up along side Alberti and he responded with a push. After 25 strokes I felt the now familiar pounding in my chest again. My pulse was at 230 bpm. I quickly aborted pushing Alberti and just rowed slowly, praying the pulse would go down. To my relief the pulse returned to normal after just a minute. I could cruise through the rest of the heat and finish in 2nd place. I was in the final but I was worried.

//

The final was a big anti-climax. I had to go hard to go for the medals. But not too hard or my heart would "go boom". Another dissapointment was that the water was absolutely flat. This meant that technique would matter less and physic would be more important. With my heart problems this was bad news.

//

I tried to row smart and keep a good pace but it wasn´t to be. I was in 10th place most of the race. A strong finish at the end bumped me up to 7th place (actually beat the 2009 World Champion) but I was not near the medals. What worried me more was the heart problem. "Really thought I would have my operation by now..."

October - December 2010 - "1,2,3... testing, testing"

The end of 2010 included so many tests. For each test I did I got more frustrated. My heart problems had been viewed and recorded on EKG multiple times but still the doctors ensured me that more tests had to be done. "You wouldn´t like us to burn you in the wrong place of the heart now, would you?". Along side of the tests I kept training. To keep my heart in check I did a lot of long distance training and weight lifting. I knowingly avoided anything that demanded too much of high heart rate. I was determined that I would get back stronger and faster. "I won´t let this thing beat me!" 

January - April 2011 - "Screw the doctors I´m beating this thing"

The doctors stopped calling me to do more tests. I decided to focus on the 2011 season. Back in 2008 another doctor had told me that the heart problems could be the result of an infection in the pericardium. Could happen if you, let´s say, train really hard despite having a bad cold. The operation didn´t seam to happen, so I decided that I would trust the heart problems were due to the infection. If it wasn´t the case I would find out sure enough. "I´m coming back, no matter what"

//

The spring training went well. Still avoided the really high pulse rates. If the problems were due to inflammation I would let my heart have time to heal. I did two training camps in Florida. The latter with some racing at a local competition in Tampa. My and my team mate Andreas won three of three races. All went well and I felt on track for the 2011 season.

May 5th 2011 - "Shit - It´s back"

Got sick after I got back from Florida. Really bad cough, sore throat, felt weak. Took me five weeks to finally shake it off. The great shape that I had before was gone. Back at square one. I took part at the Long Distance Regatta in Borås which you have to take part in if you want to make the National Team. I rowed poorly. Barley getting a decent pulse. Finished 3rd in the Mens Open a long way from Lassi Karonen and Pontus Gustavsson. Even got beat by some of the light weights. I was out of shape and more so: out of racing shape

//

In Malmö with Andreas preparing for the seasons first 2k regatta. Got some boat trouble so we ended up doing 8x500m on the erg. First one went fine. Half way through the second one I felt it... The same distinctive irregular pounding in my chest. I got through it and was worried. I asked Andreas if I could loan his Garmin Heart Monitor (mine was out of battery). He gave me his and I did the third one. As I got to 300m I couldn´t pull anymore. No energy at all in my body. My chest pounding like crazy. I glanced at the heart monitor. It showed 250 bpm. "Shit, It´s back!"

May 8th 2011 - "Second opinion"

When I called the doctors in Helsingborg they just wanted to do more tests. I felt like I was hopelessly stuck in an endless loop. I decided to get a second opinion (in truth more like 5th or 6th opinion). Got a tip that there was I good private cardiologist in Malmö, Ronnie Willenheimer. I decided to give him a try.

//

The nurses made me do all the normal tests. "Shit, not this again". But I played along, I wanted to meet this guy. During the physical test I actually broke the cycle erg. Apparently not built for strong athletes. "Suits you right", I thought.

//

Ronnie looked at the results and had a 10 min presentation about all the numbers I got from the tests. Which all pointed to that my fitness was great. "Tell my something, I don´t know". But then I got to tell him about my problems he listened with great interest. I told him the whole story. When I had told him everything he said to me. 

"I´m 90% sure that you have "Atrial flutter". It is easily fixed by an operation which has a success rate of about 95%. Get me the EKGs when you had the problems and I´ll confirm it and I´ll see if I can get you an operation as soon as possible.

May 11th 2011 - "You got screwed"

Ronnie over the phone:

"The EKGs confirms what I suspected. It´s pretty clear that you have Atrial flutter. We should try to get you an operation straight away" 

I could not believe what I was hearing. Here I had been doing endless tests spedning (or wasting) years to find how, where and if operation was right and this guy confirms it in like 5 minutes.

Ronnie continues:

"Honestly I don´t know why they have done so many tests on you. To me it´s pretty clear. I´ll have a contact in Lund. I´ll get back to you in a day or two if we can get you operation in Sweden. Otherwise you should consider getting an operation in Denmark but that would cost you"

//

Two days later, Ronnie calls back:

"Talked to my contact in Lund. It seams that they are considering whether to put you on a waiting list for an operation or not. Cause your problems are linked to physical activity they think you can quit rowing and live a normal life".

"But they told me that they were looking for the right spot to burn" , I objected

"Well, they might have done a mistake of focusing on an insignificant details in your EKG-graph. But no matter. They will most likely not give you an operation and even if you manage to get one it´s not in the next couple of years"

What I heard in short was: "Peter, you got screwed" 

May - June 2011 - "Full assault"

 Now it was war. Full assault to beat this thing. I would explore every single available option, and won´t take no for an answer.

Swedish medical system

Screwed me over pretty bad. Told me that they did tests to find out how they would do the surgery. In truth they did tests so they could avoid the cost of an operation and save money. Wasted a lot of my time by not telling me the truth. Their verdict in short: No operation ´cause I could quit training and live a normal life

Insurance companies

Got denied with my sports insurance because it only covered "injury during competition or training". My problems were genetically. Also tried my home insurance, work insurance etc. No luck

Operation abroad

No problem to get operation abroad. Problem that it was "Moment 22". With no insurance backing me up, I would have to take a considerable loan to finance it. The operation would allow me to continue rowing at an elite level, but to finance and pay back the loan I would have to work much more and therefor have to quit rowing anyway.

June 26th & 27th 2011 - "National Sprints"

After two months of constant calling, fighting and nagging I had not moved one step closer to an operation. Frustrated to say the least. Last minute I decided to enter the National Sprints to try to defend my title. I figured it might just work.

//

Time Trials: I did a close to perfect row, or at least perfect for being the first race in the single scull in almost a year. I got best time, 2.5 seconds faster than anyone else. I felt good. "This might actually work" 

Semi: Fast young rower, Dennis Gustavsson was my rival in the semi. I knew he would be fast out of the blocks, but could fade at the end. Start. Dennis took half a length after the first 20 strokes. Wasn´t too worried. Got to half way where I would do my move. Chest started pounding, power fading. "Shit". Tried a few more strokes, but it was no use so I stopped. Checked my heart monitor: 245 bpm. I felt empty...

July 1th 2011 - "The call"

At work... Feeling low.... It felt like I´ve done everything possible to come back. "Had my efforts been a total waste? Had I pushed through every training session for nothing?" It felt like I had tried one final time and it had all fallen apart.

My office phone rings. I answer...

It takes me a couple of minutes to realize that the person on the other line wasn´t a costumer. He was in fact a heart surgeon from a clinic in Stockholm. He tells me that I have an operation on August 16th and that he is 100% confident that it will cure me. The referral was from Ronnie Willenheimer and all will go though "IF" (my insurance from work). The whole conversation is so unreal. I had waited and fought for an operation for such a long time, never getting closer. Now there was a man telling me I had an operation in August? I don´t recall saying anything during the call, probably in a slight chock. After telling me a few details more about the operation we hang up. I stare at the phone for a minute in disbelief, checking the call log a few times. Then tears started running down my face.

 August 27th 2011 - "11days - Back on the starting line"

Operation was a success. Had to rest for seven days according to the surgeon, which honestly was a real pain in the ass. It actually was mostly to avoid risk of bleeding in my groin (access point of the surgery). My heart was "good to go" as he put it. Therefor I took the chance and took part in the regatta "Distanskapprodden" which was only 11 days after the operation. A traditional long distance race which also serves as a National Championship. Traditional coxed fours is the only boat class. Maybe not the most important regatta, but a win would be great for my club and it would be nice to get back on the starting line.

Daniel, Jonathan, Andreas, me & coxwain Tim

14.5km. I was in the stroke seat. We went full throttle from the very first stroke. The team from Vaxholm was leading the first 5k but as we past them it was all about us. We never slowed down. As we crossed the finish line we had averaged 31.5 strokes per minute. Eleven days after the heart surgery I was a winner again.

September 2011 - "Chest pains"

I felt immortal. Nothing could stop me now. I had it all figured out. I would make a glorious come back at the National Championship at my home lake, Hjelmsjön. Despite my racing shape being off, I thought I could medal.

"Would be pretty cool to medal in the Mens Single at the Nationals one month after my surgery"

Also, Andreas and I had a decent shot of winning the Mens 2x. But as I did my first hard intervals I felt something in my chest. No pounding like before, just pain. A LOT of pain!

"What is this? Pain? Did the operation go wrong? Is there something else wrong with my heart?" 

I tried to do the 1000m intervals anyway. Pull through despite the pain. I could tell that coach of the day, Anders, was worried. I got through some but it hurt like hell. Like someone stabbing me with a knife. After the fourth one I couldn´t do anymore, the pain was too much. I went in. Called my heart surgeon Monday morning. He got back to me a few hours later.

"You just have some inflammation from the heart operation. Very normal. Just give it another couple of weeks and you´ll be fine. You can train, but stop if it hurts"

"But you told me I was good to go. That I could train like normal?", I protested

"Well, I didn´t know that "normal" was THAT hard"

I reluctantly had to abort my plans of a comeback at Hjelmsjön. I could train as long as I kept pulse under 95%. After a few weeks, it was no trouble going harder. I started focusing and preparing for something more important. The World Coastal Rowing Championship in Bari.

October 23rd 2011 - "Bari"

A little over two months after the operation, I find myself on the starting line of the A-final of World Coastal Rowing Championship in Bari. Nerves start setting in when this would be the first real test after surgery, and the first time I've been able to compete free of heart trouble in years. Suddenly the anxiety fades and I smile to myself.

"Finally, I can compete for real again!"

//

 ... at the end of the race, in fourth place. Totally out of energy. A few minutes earlier I had gone "all in" for first place, narrowing the gap. A poor turn had blown my chances and now it looked like I was bound to miss the podium. I muster everything I got in every stroke but all I can manage is just keep even pace with the Italian, Martini, in third place. My eyesight is narrowed and I can´t hear the audience or commentator anymore. I notice that Martini goes in front to block me. Medal seemed no longer within reach. While I happen to see the clock tower on the right (e.g. not much left to finish) I dig deep one last time and explode. I go out to the side and pull the absolutely all the might I have. Somehow I managed to get along side Martini. I hear the sound of the finish horn and I collapse in the boat.

The very last stroke of the race. Martini closes to the camera. We take a glance at each other as we pass the finish line. The helicopter hovering in the background broadcasting for Italian Television.
//

Video from the finish: http://youtu.be/aB_3HJ5KBVg?t=9m53s

//
Three years of heart problems. Three years of suffering. Three years of fighting. Three years of refusing to give up. Three years of adversity, doctors telling me to quit, telling me that I could die. Three years of absolute determination to come back. As I crossed the finish line everything climaxed. For the first time in such a long time I had been able to give it my all. "I did it!"

But after a few minutes naturally got curious about who came third. It was too tight to determine if I had past Martini before the finish line or not. It is, after all, a big difference in getting fourth place and take a World Championship Bronze Medal. I ask a motorboat driver near by and a few spectators from the audience, no one knew. The results from the photo finish was delayed and eventually I started to row back to the boat area. I ask some of the Swedes along the finishing stretch, but they had not heard anything. As I row back, I start thinking.

"How straight is the finish line?"

"Were the judges alert at the finish? I was clearly behind with just 100m to go"

and most important. "The guy I was fighting for the medal was Italian....and we are in Italy...damn"

When I arrive at the boat area, one of the officials approached me and said I must hurry away to the flower ceremony. I stared at him for a few seconds.

"What? You mean I finished third?"

"Yes, you took Bronze"

I screamed out of joy. I had taken a World Championship Medal. I had beaten this thing. I had overcome my heart problems. I take up my boat and meet up with my team mate Andreas (who had previously that morning won the B-final) who gave me a big hug and we go up to the bus who would take us to the flower ceremony. A few minutes later everything becomes very emotional. Years of frustration and anger about my heart problems fading. Only three months ago my career was over due to the heart problems that had troubled me for years. Two months ago I was on the operation table undergoing surgery. Now I had taken Bronze at a World Championship. Tears of joy, relief and happiness were running down my cheek.


At the flower cermony. From the left: Alberto Extarte, Spain 2nd; Giuseppi Alberit, Italy, 1st; Me 3rd 

From worldrowing.com: "...Over 6km, just 0.3s and a photo finish separated third and fourth: a world championship bronze medal and nothing. At the finish line, the Swedish sculler Peter Berg from Helsingborgs Roddklubb was on the right side of the tiny margin and edged out favorite Simone Martin of Italy "

The joy of the medal was enormous but still it was secondary. To finally be able to compete again after all the past heart problems felt amazing. The years of fighting on and of the water, never giving up - So worth it! Now, I´m back!

“Pain is temporary. Glory lasts forever”

3 months ago my career was over due to heart problems I´ve suffered the last two years.
2 months ago I was on the operation table undergoing heart surgary
1 month ago I had to skip the National Championships due to cheast pain when I pushed myself in high race pace (still inflammation from the surgary)
Yesterday I stepped onto the podium recieving a World Championship Bronze Medal. Despite being in third place, I felt like a winner - Peter Berg 2011-10-23