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Born with a heart for running


Twenty-four-year-old John Buhler is one of the Swan Valley residents who recently travelled to Winnipeg to run in the Manitoba Marathon on June 15. While many competed in the multiple events, Buhler was one of two locals that ran the full 42.1 kilometres, finishing with a time of 4:27:10.

While John is a fit young man, and his time isn’t sending him onto the hypothetical podium, what is remarkable about his performance is that doctors didn’t think he would ever be able to accomplish an athletic feat of this magnitude, or really, any at all.

John was born with a congenital heart defect, known as the Transposition of the Great Vessels, and had to undergo emergency open heart surgery at three days old. With the way his heart was naturally wired, it would pump blood from the heart to the lungs and from the heart to the rest of the body, but the blood would never mix, leaving his body with no oxygen.

John’s parents, Dale and Diane Buhler, remember the day well.

“He was delivered on March 21, 1993 by C-section in Swan River,” Diane said. “The doctors noticed immediately that his fingertips and lips were blue, so they put John on oxygen. Every time they tried to bring him to me to hold or feed, he would try to cry or eat and immediately fall asleep, so they knew something was wrong, so they kept putting him back on oxygen.”

Arrangements were made quickly to send John to Yorkton by ambulance, and the pediatrician there determined he would need surgery and sent him by air ambulance to Saskatoon.

By the time the papers were signed approving the surgery, John was already in the operating room, where he would remain for the lengthy eight hour surgery, although the swelling in his chest didn’t allow the surgeons to wire his breastbone closed until March 27.

“We were terrified, nervous, and just going through the motions,” said Diane. “You just do whatever they tell you to do because we didn’t know what we were doing.”

The type of condition John had was historically handled with two surgeries spread out over months, which often resulted in learning difficulties and other health problems because of the lack of oxygen for so long. His case is unique as all stages were done all at once in a procedure that hadn’t been tackled before.

“(His surgeon) Dr. Roxane McKay was very reluctant to give any kind of answers about percentage of success rate,” said Diane. “She said 75-80 percent pull through something like this, but because he was the first one (with this kind of surgery), she wasn’t going to give percentages like that and give false hope.”

“Dr. Ninan, the pediatrician in Saskatoon, said early on that he wouldn’t initially have the upper body strength because they had just opened his chest,” added Dale. “Usually if (babies) grab your finger, they try to pull themselves up, but he didn’t really do that. He wasn’t as strong.”

John was discharged on April 9 after 20 days in the hospital, and arrived back in Swan River on Good Friday.

Checkups with doctors initially would be every three months, but gradually extended to three years apart. The pediatrician from Saskatoon said that there was a good chance that John may never be able to participate in Phys. Ed. or keep up with other children. And, he would never play contact sports because of the danger.

As it turned out, that wasn’t the case.

“He could keep up with anybody and always had good marks,” said Diane. “If you didn’t tell the teacher that he had had heart surgery, they wouldn’t know.”

When John decided that he wanted to play high school football, they called the cardiologist to consult and see whether that would be possible.

“Dr. Tyrrell called back and said, ‘I have his reports in front of me, and if John wants to play football, let him play football’,” said Diane.

John had exceeded all the previous expectations.

“I participate in any sport I want to or feel like,” said John. “I haven’t felt like I’ve been slowed down, and keeping up with others isn’t a problem.”

One hiccup that John encountered as an adult was when it came to a medical exam to qualify to become a pilot. It was at this time that he discovered that his heart rhythm had palpitations, and he failed on the ECG portion of the test.

Through lots of phone calls and letters, his cardiologist at the time – who in-part advised the Transport Canada Aeronautical rules – helped him to receive his Category 1 licence later in the year.

After undergoing a series of stress tests while hooked up to a heart monitor, doctors discovered that John’s heart actually had less palpitations when he was active.

Fast forward to 2017 where John has a college education, a private pilot’s licence, and partial ownership of the family farm. He decided to take up running on Jan. 31 to help cope with a different kind of broken heart.

“In December, my wife left me, so to help cope with the stress, anxiety, and depression in a positive way, I took up running,” John said. “On that first night, I hopped on the treadmill and ran four miles. The next night, five miles, and on the third night, six miles.

“On the fourth night, I decided to sign up for the Hypothermic Half-Marathon, just 14 days before the event.

“One of my friends had run it before, and I used to think he was crazy to run in the cold,” he continued. “I wanted a goal I could work towards and something exciting to give me hope, so I just found the closest marathon or (long-distance run).”

John had no regimented training, but being unable to sleep meant he had lots of time to run.

By the time the event arrived, John had only run a maximum of seven miles in one stretch, and only indoors, versus the chilly 13.1 miles that lie before him.

“When I got to the halfway point and saw my friends and family standing there, it gave me incredible motivation to keep going to show that I could do this,” said John, who finished his first half-marathon with a time of 2:05:44.

“I was very tired. It was the farthest I had ever run. My legs were tired and cramping, so I have since learned to stretch and warm up properly. Running is something you’re born to do, but running that distance takes something special.”

Two weeks later, John signed up for the Manitoba Marathon.

Even though the hectic schedule of seeding interrupted his training routine, John still ran as often as he could, in a variety of locations, from indoors on the treadmill to out on a local mountain trail.

The last long run that John did before the marathon was the Swan River Fun Run, signing up for the half-marathon on a whim. While he wasn’t used to the hot, sunny, outdoor conditions, he improved his time, finishing with a time of 1:53:38.

It was soon after that John found himself standing at the finish line of the Manitoba Marathon – his first full marathon – with a smile on his face. He didn’t accomplish his goal of a four hour finish, but he has already signed up for his next marathon – Sept. 10 in Regina – and will strive closer to that goal the next time.

“I really enjoy running, and it really helps with my mental health,” said John. “Thinking too far in advance was stressful, so I just wanted to run a little bit faster than yesterday.”

When John lets himself think about more long term goals, he hopes that eventually he may even be fast enough to qualify for the Boston Marathon. His age category would require him to run the distance in 3:05:00 – a substantial gap to shrink.

Until that time, all he is interested in is shaving seconds off his time, and running that extra mile.

Jeremy Bergen