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Near-death experience leaves a new love of life

Greg Marchand thinks every single day about the time he almost died. Now the Victorian has written a book about the experience.
Open Heart Runner

Greg Marchand thinks every single day about the time he almost died.

Now the Victorian has written a book about the experience.

Open Heart Runner - Searching for Meaning After My Heart Stopped describes in excruciating detail circumstances surrounding his massive heart attack at 11: 34 a.m. on Jan. 11, 1998. The 40-year-old collapsed under a finishline banner after an eightkilometre race in Saanichton. For 20 minutes, Marchand, lying on gravel, had no pulse. His heart stopped beating. He was clinically dead.

Then he fell into a coma. His complete and rather miraculous recovery took two years. Lack of oxygen during those 20 minutes caused a brain injury. Memories were lost. When Marchand first saw his son Leo after the heart attack, he could not remember his name.

There are oodles of inspirational books about backfrom-the-brink experiences with life-threatening afflictions. Adam's Heart, for instance, is about one man's experience with heart disease. Broken Hearts and Empty Chairs chronicles a woman's journey back after a heart attack.

Marchand's book is different, partly because it's so well written. Although he's a teacher at St. Michaels University School, in this city Marchand is probably best known as a runner.

He's not an elite marathoner or winner of 10-kilometre races, but he is, or was, a competitive athlete clocking impressive times. (People often mistake him for another wellknown runner, Rob Reid - both are wiry redheads with curly hair.)

Open Heart Runner is a tightly written, sharply focused memoir. The writing style is appealingly matter-of-fact - simple in the best sense of the word. Marchand does delve into some spiritual/philosophical ruminations that, in the hands of other writers, might be irritatingly newagey and airy-fairy. Happily, there's a plain-spoken quality to his discussions of Roman Catholicism, prayer and the healing powers of acupuncture.

It's a good book.

How does a 40-year-old even get a heart attack, anyway? Forty is pretty young. Marchand's case was unusual. Unbeknownst to him, he had blocked arteries to his heart, believed to be a result of a rare illness called Kawasaki disease. The disease can affect the coronary arteries, forming aneurysms or blood clots that lead to a heart attack. (Doctors don't know this for certain in Marchand's case - that's just their theory.)

To compensate, his body developed collateral - that is, secondary - arteries that formed around the blocked arteries. Doctors said they'd never seen such developed collateral arteries. This happened, they believe, as a result of being a runner. So running may have saved his life, allowing him to live as long as he did before the heart attack.

It saved his life in other ways, too. Marchand figures if he wasn't a runner, he could well have been alone when he suffered a heart attack. When he collapsed at the end of the race, he was surrounded by fellow runners - doctors and others - who knew how to administer CPR. A dentist gave mouth-tomouth. A retired anesthetist did chest compressions.

The incision for his subsequent bypass operation ran the length of his chest and stomach. Heart attacks are not uncommon. But when you hear all the details, you fully realize the magnitude of such an event.

Marchand says the experience changed him. He mellowed out. Not long after his heart attack, his son Leo asked: "Why are you so nice now?" Marchand stopped sweating the small stuff. Problems that had seemed immense before his near-fatal race were put into perspective.

He still runs. But it's different now. Marchand still runs the odd race, but he's no longer a stop-watch contender. He notices his environment more - the trees and the birds.

"I've learned to run in more of an appreciative way, in an almost reverential way," he said.

Fitness fanatics often buy into the Big Myth. The notion is that, with good diet and regular exercise, one becomes invincible. Marchand's heart attack exploded any such self-talk for good. There are some things in life over which you have no control. Like dying.

"I hope [the book] has some universality to it," Marchand said. "Everybody, at some point, is going to be faced with death. How you deal with that is always a question."

I wondered why it took him 14 years to get his book published. Marchand said he'd approached agents and publishers, a long and ponderous process, but with no success. He worked and reworked his manuscript, taking the past year off from teaching to polish it. The book is self-published via Victoria's Agio Publishing House (run by the folk who founded Trafford Publishing).

He floored me when I asked if he was writing another book. Yes, he said. It's about his surviving a malignant melanoma. This wasn't mentioned in Open Heart Runner. Five years later, doctors say he's cancer-free.

It may be a cliché, but like many clichés, it's true. Because of his close encounter with death, Marchand takes nothing in his life for granted.

"There isn't a single day that goes by where I don't, at some point, remember it," he said. "It's a touchstone."

Marchand is having a book launch for Open Heart Runner at 7 p.m. tonight at Moka House on Hillside Avenue. Copies are also available at Munro's Books and Frontrunners Footwear.

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