Tien Nguyen never dreamed he’d be lying in a hospital bed, yet there he was. Frightened and confused, he was awaiting open heart surgery. How could that be? He was just 59, weighed 165 lbs with a body mass index of 18 percent. He seemed to be in excellent physical condition. The heaviness in his chest must be something else, he insisted. Perhaps heartburn or indigestion?
“When the cardiologist told me I needed emergency surgery I was in shock,” remembers Nguyen. “I thought I was doing everything right. This cannot be happening to me.”
Tests showed one artery was 70 percent blocked. Another was blocked 90 percent. Surgery could not wait. The double-bypass would take six and a half hours.
“Where is he?” his volleyball teammates wondered. His Kryszak Athletic Venues Buffalo and Rochester, New York team was more than friends, they were as close as brothers. Tien never missed practice. He was never even late. “We knew something had to be wrong.”
“We were getting ready for the tournament in the New York State Empire Games,” said Nguyen. “I texted a teammate and he thought I was joking. Everybody was like, ‘What? Tien is in the hospital for heart surgery?’ It’s like, ‘No, that can’t be.’”
But it was and it was bad. “My doctor told me, ‘You are the walking dead.’ He said the only reason I hadn’t collapsed and died was because I work out every day.”
“This cannot be the end,” he thought. “After all I’ve been through.” Nguyen couldn’t help but think back to his childhood. Born in Vietnam, he was 14 years old when he and his family were forced to flee Saigon. They ended up in America, where a refugee camp became his home.
“It was difficult,” he said, “But we were grateful to be alive and determined to make the best of it.” His experience taught Nguyen not to dwell on the past or his current situation, but instead to keep pushing forward. It is a trait that even impresses his wife.
“She says to me, ‘I don’t understand how you’ve avoided having nightmares and flashbacks.’ And I tell her that I have had to learn to let things go and instead look forward to the future. You have to believe there are always brighter things ahead.”
He applied that same philosophy to dealing with his heart surgery. Thanks to his attitude and his physical condition his recovery was quick and complete. Just eight weeks after surgery he was back on the volleyball court. Today, at the age of 61 he continues to work as a software engineer, and physical activity is a daily part of his life.
Most of all, he is grateful to his volleyball team, who won gold at the 2022 National Senior Games. In the 50s division he is the only player in his 60s. He knows that not only is he a teammate, but he is also an inspiration. “I know the reason I am alive is because I am active,” he said. “If my story will help motivate others to protect their health by keeping fit, then I feel like I won the lotto.”
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