156. Marathon of a Lifetime for Swimmer Don Macdonald


Don McDonald

On June 28, Barrington resident Don Macdonald will be kayaking around Manhattan Island to support Doug McConnell, his friend and endurance training partner who will be competing in the Manhattan Island Swim race.

Though just a few years ago, Macdonald himself was doing the swimming as he was training to swim the English Channel when he collapsed with a cardiac arrhythmia right outside his home after a run. A neighbor who happened to be a retired nurse began resuscitating him until EMS arrived and he was rushed to Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital in Barrington, Ill.

Don MacDonald
Barrington Swimmer Don MacDonald – Photo Courtesy of Susan McConnell of SusanMcConnellPhotography.com

Training for the English Channel is not for the faint of heart. It involves training for 18-24 months, swimming over a million yards, most in bone chilling water temperatures (60 degree Fahrenheit or less), starting swims in the dark before work, on weekends and in bad weather.

Macdonald’s first attempt to swim the English Channel in 2010 never happened due to weather conditions. Upon his return to the U.S., Macdonald decided to take a break from training. He experienced shoulder pains, arm and chest discomfort that he thought were the result of the physical strains of training. However after a stress test showing possible abnormalities in blood flow, he was referred to a cardiologist.

Good Shepherd Hospital cardiologist Dr. George Christy identified several narrowed arteries that received stent treatment and Don began a typical regimen of medication.

After 12-14 months and several stress tests to confirm Macdonald was healthy and able to handle more intense physical exercise, he was cleared by his medical team to begin training for a second attempt in 2014, carefully coordinating his heart health with his physicians.

“When swimming in such extreme conditions, we always like to work together with the patient to make sure their body is in optimal shape to withstand the rigors of cold and the swimming distance,” Dr. Christy says. “While we try to anticipate what might happen when putting such intense stress on the body, even with stress tests and additional observation, there are situations that we can’t always predict.”

Dr. Christy explains Macdonald went into ventricular fibrillation, often called V-FIB, which is an uncoordinated heart rhythm resulting in a very disorganized contraction making the heart muscle quiver rather than contract synchronously. While most episodes occur in diseased hearts, it can also occur in a relatively normal heart like Macdonald’s.

“In addition to his stent treated coronary disease, Don also has some residual disease that was treated with medications. Under significant stress during some of his training workouts, although he performed well in the stress lab, we cannot control for all variables the demands placed on one’s heart during temperature extremes and hydration changes,” Dr. Christy says. “An imbalance between oxygen supply and demand at the right time can cause the heart to misfire.”

“When he went into cardiac arrest, Don was fortunate in many ways including being a highly trained athlete, have a nurse nearby to immediately to initiate CPR and to have EMS arrive so quickly getting him to an emergency room,” Dr. Christy explains.

When he arrived at Good Shepherd Hospital, after re-establishing a normal cardiac rhythm, in addition to other appropriate therapies, he was treated with hypothermia. After nearly a week and a half in the hospital and months of cardiac rehab, Macdonald is on the road to recovery and even trying to get back in the water.

“Clearly I’m not a runner and my goal is to safely get back into the water. I am thankful to so many people who helped save my life and my ‘awakening’ moment now is to share the importance of knowing your heart health,” Macdonald says. “I also want to share the importance of not giving up on a goal since I’m currently working closely with my cardiac rehab team and physicians to see what I might be able to do in regard to my passion of swimming.”

“Don is very fortunate to be with us and the fact that we are discussing how to get him back exercising is a great conversation to be in,” Dr. Christy says. “I hope to work with Don for many years to come and continue to monitor his and his family’s heart since we now know this is in his family.”

“My entire health care team is helping me get back to the exercise that I enjoy. Will I be training to swim the English Channel again? Probably not but I am looking for my next challenge physically,” Macdonald says. “I want to help others, especially those that don’t often see their doctor, go to check-ups, and consider family genetics to get checked out properly.”

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About the Author

Post 300 - Erin Abbey at Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital

Erin Abbey is the public affairs and marketing manager at Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital in Barrington where she works on getting the word out about hospital news and accomplishments as well as community events and activities.

Erin recently relocated from Chicago to the northwest suburbs where she lives with her husband, two young daughters and her dog Kallie. When she’s not at work, Erin enjoys exploring new restaurants, practicing yoga and pilates, reading as much as possible and attempting to keep up with all the news on social media.

CLICK HERE to read the latest articles Erin has written for Advocate Health’s enews platform at achealthenews.com.

She is also the author of our 365 Barrington Health Beat series focused on advice from area physicians, the latest medical news and trends toward better health in and around Barrington.

Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital in Barrington, Illinois is a 169-bed acute care hospital with more than 700 physicians representing 50 medical specialties. It is part of Advocate Health Care, named one of the Top Ten hospital systems in the U.S. by Thomson-Reuters. Advocate is a faith-based organization that exists to serve its communities. For more about Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital, visit AdvocateHealth.com/goodshep.

Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital at 450 W. Highway 22 in Barrington
Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital at 450 W. Highway 22 in Barrington

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