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Surgeons Help Runner Break Record

Mark’s Heart and Hip Surgeries

Mark Buciak is not your typical runner.

In his heart, he has a bovine heart valve. In his hip, a titanium joint. He is from Chicago, but in his veins, he has some Boston blood: In his past are 39 consecutive Boston Marathon finishes; in his future, many more, if he has his way.

The enthusiastic husband and father of 8-year-old twins ran his first Boston Marathon at the age of 19. “I had no idea what I was getting into,” he recalls, never imagining he would someday become the first runner from Illinois to complete 39 consecutive Boston Marathons.

But the allure of the 122-year-old race - the history, the passion of spectators who treat the runners like rock stars, and the opportunity to compete alongside the most elite athletes in the world – drew Mark back to the course year after year. Then, the November before his 27th race, Mark paid a visit to his primary care physician for a routine physical that changed his life.

Change of Heart

Because of his family history of heart disease, Mark’s physician, Nadim Khoury, MD, performed a standard echocardiogram (EKG) in the office each year during Mark’s annual physical exam. On this visit, the EKG was abnormal. Mark, then 45, learned five months before his next Boston Marathon that he had a leaky heart valve that needed replacement.

Mark eventually consulted with Northwestern Medicine Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute Executive Director and Cardiac Surgeon Patrick McCarthy, MD, and asked if the surgery could be scheduled for April 21 — two days after the Boston Marathon. But Dr. McCarthy told Mark he could not safely train for and run the marathon with his heart in its current state. Undaunted, Mark then asked if the surgery could be done the very next day so that he could maximize his recovery time before the race.

Such an expedited plan was impossible. Ultimately the surgery, which replaced Mark’s leaky valve with a bovine valve from a cow, was performed about two weeks later — 10 weeks before the race. His physicians explained that it would not be safe for him to run or even walk a marathon so soon after major heart surgery.

Yet Mark remained determined to be in Boston for his 27th race.

After thinking things through, he decided that if he at least started the race, his streak of race starts would be intact. He thought he might walk a mile and call it quits. With his heart monitor in place and a promise to himself not to exceed 130 beats per minute, Mark did indeed start his 27th Boston Marathon. Feeling good after mile one, he continued to mile two…the rest is history. Mark completed the race with a time of 5:42:31. Mark’s wife, Barrie, walked by his side for the last 10 miles, his new heart valve beating happily in his chest.

A New Challenge

After fully recovering from heart surgery, Mark restarted his running regimen with encouragement from his physicians, who felt it was a heart-healthy activity. Then 12 years later, on another fateful November day, Mark hit a new obstacle — hip pain.

Considering his long and positive history with Northwestern Medicine, Mark felt confident turning to the same health system for his hip issue. He met with Orthopaedic Surgeon Michael D. Stover, MD, Northwestern Center for Comprehensive Orthopaedic and Spine Care, who suggested that Mark needed hip replacement surgery.

“I told him immediately that April 16 was Patriot’s Day and I planned to be on the starting line of the Boston Marathon,” recalls Mark. “I asked, ‘How can you get me there?’”

Mark was impressed with Dr. Stover’s team, whose extensive experience with hip replacement was apparent. “One of the reasons I selected Dr. Stover was his frequency doing hip replacement surgery was so amazing,” Mark recalls. “He not only had top-notch experience, but he also had the latest technology. And it only started with him. I came to realize that the physician assistant, the nurses, the physical therapists and occupational therapists, the social worker — they all specialize in patients who have hip replacement surgery. It’s not just one person; it’s his entire team. I felt it from the very beginning.”

Mark says when he awoke from surgery, one of the first things he said was, “Alright, who’s ready to go for a run? I am!”

Determination Pays Off

Mark already knew that his titanium hip was not made for high-impact activities like running, but Dr. Stover suggested that walking was a healthy option. Having walked the Boston Marathon before, Mark knew he could do it again. He trained for four and a half months after hip surgery, focusing on cross-training activities like Pilates, aqua aerobics and core work. Three weeks before the race, he walked 20 miles under five hours in a rainstorm on the hilly backroads of Southern Indiana. He was ready.

On race day in Boston, Mark encountered extreme weather conditions that brought frigid temperatures, heavy rain and strong headwinds, but he smiled his way through 26.2 miles, speed-walking at a sub-14-minute-mile pace. “The conditions were tough, but I live and train in Chicago, so I was tougher,” he says. And as has been his tradition for nearly four decades, Mark celebrated his accomplishment by going to Boston’s world-famous Bova Bakery.

While Mark’s race habits were a healthy choice for his bovine heart valve, his titanium hip needs more cautious care to extend its life. Mark followed up with Dr. Stover after his first Boston Marathon with the new hip, and his X-rays were perfect.

“My hip looked the same as it did coming out of surgery,” Mark says. “Dr. Stover and his team had a really good day on November 29 [the date of surgery], so I was able to have a great day at the Boston Marathon.”

Life-Saving Story

Mark’s future is bright, if uncertain. He hopes to find a way to return to running, but in the meantime, he’s dedicated to training other runners, which includes educating them about the importance of physical exams. He credits his primary care physician at Northwestern Medicine, the now-retired Dr. Khoury, for ordering the EKG that saved his life. Had he run that next race with his valve in the shape it was in, he may not have lived to tell about it.

As a running coach and program director for The Road to Boston Training Program, Mark tells his runners that the first thing they should do when training for a marathon is to see their primary care physician and ask, “Is there any reason I shouldn’t run a marathon?”

“Many runners and athletes think they are immune to heart problems because they are working out,” Mark says. “That is a false and dangerous myth. It doesn’t matter how world-class your medical team is — they are worthless if you don’t go see them.”

Mark and Barrie, who has completed 13 Boston Marathons, met during one of Mark’s running seminars. Now they are dedicated to giving back to the Northwestern Medicine system that has given them so much, including delivering their twin daughters Ella Grace and Emelia Faith at Northwestern Medicine Prentice Women’s Hospital. The Buciaks have served on the Northwestern Medicine Patient and Family Advisory Board for more than 12 years.

“The medical staff at Northwestern Medicine is second-to-none,” says Mark. “I could not have achieved what I did without them. I consider them an extremely important part of my running support team and feel confident in my doctors and their teams. And I’m happy to be alive and able to compete at Boston.”

Is there a 40th Boston Marathon in Mark’s future? Considering all of the odds he’s overcome thus far, it’s a safe bet.