Setting new CrossFit benchmarks -- even after open-heart surgery

Deb Schelebo: "They were total strangers, but they had gone through the same thing I was going through and had their chests cracked open. It was amazing to know they were CrossFitters like me and they were all able to go back to it." Courtesy of Deb Schelebo

It was December 19th, 2015, when Deb Schelebo introduced herself to the group. "I was born with a heart murmur," she said. "It eventually led to a diagnosis of severe aortic stenosis when I passed out after a series of double-under attempts. My big dilemma now is sitting quietly for the mid-January surgery, and what type of valve to use."

Schelebo, 56, a member at CrossFit 380 in McKinney, Texas, couldn't believe the responses she got from her post in the I Heart CrossFit Facebook group. After a warm and rousing welcome, the members offered her advice and input on the pros and cons of mechanical, bovine and pig valves, and assured her that whichever she chose, she could and would not only recover, but also return to CrossFit.

"The group gave me the confidence I needed to go forward with my surgery," Schelebo says. "It was extraordinarily helpful to have these people to talk to. They were total strangers, but they had gone through the same thing I was going through and had their chests cracked open. It was amazing to know they were CrossFitters like me and they were all able to go back to it."

The CrossFit community is what separates it from other forms of fitness training. Naysayers call it cultish, but those who within it thrive on the support. The I Heart CrossFit group, started by D.J. Forsyth, a CrossFit Games regional competitor and owner of CrossFit PRx in Spring, Texas, is an online extension of a subset of that community.

Forsyth had his faulty aortic valve replaced with a mechanical one in December of 2013. Terrified he would never be able to CrossFit again, he Googled "CrossFit and OHS." After sifting through hundreds of search results on how to improve his overhead squat, Forsyth came across a 2012 espnW story on Ingrid Kantola, a fellow regional competitor and owner of CrossFit Jaakaru in nearby Austin. Kantola had open-heart surgery in May of 2010 to repair damage done to her heart by endocarditis, an infection that literally shredded her mitral valve. But because Kantola's zipper scar runs horizontally under her sports bra line, as opposed to the more customary -- and more visible -- vertical scar, Forsyth never knew. He reached out on Facebook, and the two became fast friends.

With many pep-talks from Kantola, Forsyth made a speedier-than-most recovery and competed in the CrossFit open in March of 2014, when a story about him appeared on CrossFit's official website. He began receiving Facebook messages from CrossFitters across the country who were also dealing with heart problems. He started the group, added the eight CrossFitters who had messaged him to it, and described it as a "little group of us that have had or might one day need to have heart surgery."

The group is no longer so little. There are now 81 members, stretching from Australia to Austin. Each member has had or is waiting to have open-heart surgery. And each one is a CrossFitter.

"Young, active people like us are not the typical demographic for heart surgery," Forsyth says. "It's so cool to watch our group grow and see people communicate on there and help each other."

One of those members is Asha Purohit, 27, of CrossFit Soda City in Columbia, South Carolina. Purohit had always known she had a bicuspid aortic valve, but didn't develop symptoms until the age of 25. During the summer of 2014, Purohit developed pain in her neck and jaw and began to feel out of breath and faint. She was diagnosed with an aortic aneurysm (an enlargement of the aorta) and underwent open-heart surgery in August of 2014.

Shortly after, she found the I Heart CrossFit group where she, too, told her story. Purohit became so comfortable with the group that when she had a bout with pericarditis (an inflammation of the tissue around her heart) a few months after surgery, she turned immediately to I Heart CrossFit. "The first thing I did when I got the diagnosis was get on the Facebook group," she says. "I felt defeated and I didn't know what to do, and I knew they would understand in a way no one else would, because they've all been there in some way or another."

Like most of the CrossFitters in the group, Purohit got conflicting information from doctors as to whether she could or should continue her CrossFit training after her surgery. But Dr. John Ikonomidis, her cardiac surgeon at the Medical University of South Carolina, assured her that they did the surgery so she could live without restrictions and gave her the all-clear three months after the operation.

"The conservative treatment stance with regard to activity that's voiced by some cardiologists is not entirely inappropriate, but having said this, I honestly think it's safe for Asha to continue," Ikonomidis said. "The heart itself is undamaged from the operation and the heart muscle still responds the same way to exercise."

And so does the mind. The confidence that comes from being able to complete workouts that the open-heart surgery survivors did before surgery is energizing and empowering -- and doubly so when they begin making improvements on their pre-surgery benchmarks. Members of the group proudly share their triumphs, and whenever members have setbacks or questions, the group is always there.

They discuss how much weight to lift overhead and how to keep power cleans from irritating a still-healing incision. They post photos of their zipper scars and their squat positions. They float questions to the group. Can I get a tattoo while on blood thinners? (Not advisable; infection is a bigger risk than bleeding). How do I monitor the size of a bruise? (Circle it with a Sharpie so you can see if it gets bigger.) Is it OK to hold your breath on heavy lifts? (Yes, but don't go crazy.) They donate to each other's fundraisers and created an I Heart CrossFit t-shirt for the group. And they share videos of their check-up echocardiograms, so the other members can see and hear the beating of their hearts.

"We're all just saying, 'Hey! Check out my heart,'" says Schelebo. "Because we are all still alive."