At 62, Peter Orr worked 10 hours a day at a challenging job. He didn’t get a lot of exercise, but he figured he never smoked and didn’t drink very much, so despite his sedentary lifestyle, he believed he was healthy.
Then in the fall of 2016, Peter returned from vacation feeling tired and out of breath. His GP listened to Peter’s heart and on that particular day, something happened that would change Peter forever. The doctor said, “‘You have an irregular heartbeat. You should go emergency right away.’”
Unsure of what to make of it, Peter went to a local hospital. He was given a beta blocker—a class of medicine commonly used to treat a wide range of problems in the heart—and sent home.
A few days later, Peter started to feel very, very sick.
On Friday night, well into the evening, Peter barely made it to VGH. But on this night, he came into the care of Dr. Christopher Fordyce, a cardiologist at VGH.
“I’ve always been amazed by this because when you look at who Dr. Fordyce is, he’s a full professor, he’s on a lot of boards, he’s a very big deal as a cardiologist,” says Peter. “It’s just so amazing to me that he does the graveyard shift in the emergency department on a regular basis.”
Adjusting the heart
“Peter came in with congestive heart failure due to atrial fibrillation,” says Dr. Forydce. “He had rapid, uncontrolled heart rates. His heart function at that time was less than 50 per cent of normal. He was struggling to walk, couldn’t do any of his usual activities.”
Dr. Fordyce became Peter’s cardiologist, and referred him to the heart function clinic at VGH, as well as the electrophysiology team and the atrial fibrillation clinic under the care of Dr. Matthew Bennett and Dr. Jason Andrade, two world leaders in their fields.
“Peter’s heart was only pumping out 20 per cent of its blood per beat. The average heart does 60 to 70 per cent,” says Dr. Fordyce. “He needed the expert care available in these places if he was to recover.”
At a check-up in January 2017, Dr. Fordcye gave Peter the OK to begin to exercise. Peter made his first steps into what would become a journey across the globe.
“At this point, I started walking around the block. And then I walked down to the store. And then I started to walk to the store and back,” says Peter. “I started a routine of walking farther and farther every day. Then a group of people in my office formed a company team to run the Vancouver Sun Run.”
This became Peter’s new objective. He started training at a local community centre, running on a treadmill. In the spring of 2017, he he completed the Sun Run in just under an hour.
“I thought well, if I can run 10K, I can do a half-marathon,” says Peter.
Peter ran that one.
Then he learned of a full marathon in Honolulu that December.
He ran that one, too.
His wife, Carol, gave him a book called 50 Runs to Do Before You Die. He hasn’t looked back since.
At 69 years old, Peter has gone from a sedentary lifestyle with heart problems to running marathons around the globe. He regularly runs 50 km a week and swims on a master’s swim team. And in the six years since he started training, Peter has finished 13 global marathons, including races in Paris, Istanbul, Melbourne, and the highly competitive Boston Marathon.
“He makes me feel pretty lazy,” says Dr. Fordyce. “And his heart function has remained stable throughout all of this. That part is what I find really incredible, is that each challenge Peter faced has not impacted his quality of life.”
“I give full credit to the VGH team for making this possible. The treatment I received there got me to the point where I was able to start running. And their ongoing monitoring gave me the confidence to push myself,” says Peter.
Throughout his training Peter continued to suffer intermittent atrial fibrillation (AFIB). AFIB increases the risk of stroke. In February 2022, he underwent ablation surgery to finally correct this condition. Since then, he’s returned to running marathons, and has plans for many more in the future.
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