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The Heart of an Athlete

Patient Story

The Heart of an Athlete

Roughly a year after his surgery at Mass General for an aortic aneurysm, Lane Glenn still achieved the adventure of a lifetime: climbing Argentina’s Mount Aconcagua.

Kelsey Abbruzzese
April 3, 2024

Only about 30% of people who attempt to climb Argentina’s Mount Aconcagua — the tallest mountain in the Americas — reach the summit of the 22,837-foot peak. For Lane Glenn, a lifetime athlete who, in 2021, started planning his trip there, it wasn’t the odds that almost kept him home. It was his heart.

In late 2022, cardiology tests revealed Lane had an aortic aneurysm, which occurs when a weak spot in the wall of the aorta begins to bulge. Eric Isselbacher, MD, MSC, cardiologist at the Corrigan Minehan Heart Center at Massachusetts General Hospital and co-director of the Mass General Thoracic Aortic Center, told Lane he likely had been born with an abnormally weak aorta. The bulge had been slowly growing his entire life and was in danger of rupturing.

“He told me that, more than likely, it would have been my fate to die on the mountain if we hadn’t discovered this,” says 56-year-old Lane, who has served as the president of Northern Essex Community College in Lawrence, Massachusetts, since 2011.

Instead, thanks to a successful operation by Thor Sundt, MD, chief of the Division of Cardiac Surgery and director of the Corrigan Minehan Heart Center, and the care of Dr. Isselbacher and the Heart Center team, Lane made it to Mount Aconcagua — one year, eleven weeks and five days after his surgery to repair the aneurysm.

Eric M. Isselbacher, MD, MSC

A Lifetime of Adventure

Lane first began experiencing irregular heartbeats in 2003 while training for a triathlon. At one point, he had rapid heartbeats that reached a frightening 300 beats per minute. Doctors performed an ablation, which burns or freezes sections inside the heart to create small scars that break up electrical signals that cause irregular heartbeats. The ablation was unsuccessful, so Lane received a pacemaker and defibrillator, along with an official diagnosis of idiopathic ventricular tachycardia — irregular heartbeats without a real explanation — and he kept competing in half marathons and triathlons. The defibrillator malfunctioned a few years later, so he had it removed and underwent another ablation. This time, the procedure was successful.

Fast forward to late 2022, and Lane began experiencing strange cardiac sensations again while running. He wore a monitor to record his heart’s rhythm and had an echocardiogram, which revealed a sizable aortic aneurysm. His cardiologist in Newburyport referred Lane to Dr. Isselbacher, who told him that he needed surgery.

“I told him that I was already planning the trip to Aconcagua and that I still wanted to go,” Lane says. “He told me that I was in good shape, and I could recover from this well. So, we counted backward from when I was planning to be in South America, and that’s when we scheduled the surgery.”

“Lane leads an active life, and he wanted to continue to lead an active life. We wanted to make that possible for him,” says Dr. Isselbacher. “A huge part of our ‘whole patient approach’ is about meeting patients where they are.”

Thor Sundt, MD
Thor Sundt, MD

Crawl, Walk, Run

Dr. Sundt successfully performed open-heart surgery in October 2022 to replace Lane’s bulging ascending aorta with a synthetic graft. Dr. Sundt told Lane he would likely be back to 80% of his fitness six weeks after surgery, 90% by six months and then, back to his normal physical abilities a year post-operation. With the approval of his care team, Lane was walking three to five miles a day two weeks after the surgery and ran a 5K at the six-week mark — his eyes trained on Aconcagua.

“I was so grateful that Mass General had people on staff willing to talk to a crazy adventure athlete who wanted to push his recovery,” Lane says. “They consulted with me, looked at my baseline fitness and age profile and told me how much I could do.”

“For me, cardiac surgery is about more than saving lives,” Dr. Sundt says. “It’s about returning patients to the lives they love.”

A New Kind of Summit

When December 2023 arrived, and Lane was about to climb Aconcagua, he felt more anxious than he had in the past. “I’ve been on lots of mountains, but I’ve never been up one after open-heart surgery, and I’ve never been up one as high as Aconcagua,” he says. “The oxygen level is only about one-third of what it is at sea level. I didn’t know how my body would perform, even without the open-heart surgery.”

“From beginning to end, from the time I was referred there through post-operative care, every nurse, physician and staff member I encountered was friendly, understanding, responsive and skillful.”

But his body did perform. Lane’s recovery and training had gone so well that the surgery didn’t cross his mind. His labored breathing was due to the high altitude, just like everyone else’s. And even though high winds and freezing temperatures stopped Lane and the other climbers right below the summit, he still considered the trip a success.

“I know that attitude can’t overcome degenerative physical illness, but it can absolutely aid in recovery,” says Lane. “I’ve been a lifelong optimist, and I think that helped me build confidence for a swift recovery. A positive attitude coupled with skilled care, which Mass General certainly provides, means a lot when it comes to putting one foot in front of the other.”

Lane and his brothers are debating a return to Aconcagua to reach the summit, or possibly heading to Denali in Alaska. Wherever his next adventure takes him, he’s grateful to Mass General’s Heart Center team for putting him back on the road less traveled.

“From beginning to end, from the time I was referred there through post-operative care, every nurse, physician and staff member I encountered was friendly, understanding, responsive and skillful,” Lane says. “It’s been the best experience I could have had for something as intimidating and frightening as heart surgery.”

To learn more about making a gift to the Corrigan Minehan Heart Center, please contact us.