0519-Feature-Rise Above_Blog

Mark Cecola appreciates each moment in his life. When the successful Chicago restaurateur isn’t working, he’s with family and longtime friends, enjoying simple pleasures like interesting conversation and laughter.

Because he lives with heart failure, Cecola is determined not to let the condition sideline him.

“You’ve got to wake up thinking each day is a big deal,” said the 39-year-old. “It’s hard to translate that without sounding like a greeting card.”

Cecola was born with subaortic stenosis, a heart defect that limits blood flow. Hours after birth, he was whisked by medical helicopter to another hospital for surgery. He has since had four corrective surgeries. As a teenager and young adult, Cecola said he enjoyed “smooth sailing” and a fairly normal life.

Then, in his early 30s, a flu-like virus struck.

“It kind of shut down my whole body, organ by organ,” Cecola said. The virus took a toll on his already vulnerable heart, which started to fail.

Cecola received an implantable cardioverter defibrillator, or ICD, which last year detected a dangerous heart rhythm. The device delivered several electrical shocks to get his heart back to its normal beat.

“I thought I was dead. I thought my heart just stopped,” he said, recalling the frightening and lonely experience that occurred in a parking garage.

The initial shock was so strong it loosened one of the wires on his ICD. He now has a new one.

“It was a little rough out of the gate. There was some anxiety of that shock,” he said. “Little by little, I got past that.”

The staff at his clinic were especially helpful, and his cardiologist, Burhan Mohamedali, M.D., suggested that he volunteer with the American Heart Association.

Cecola is now a patient ambassador in the association’s Rise Above Heart Failure campaign, sharing his story so that others with heart failure realize they, too, can lead active lives while managing their condition.

Mark Cecola_business partner Anthony Gambino“The bright thing is that I’m here,” he said. “I’ve been able to do a lot.”

Cecola oversees a growing Italian restaurant chain, Armand’s, which began with his grandfather’s original restaurant in 1956.

Cecola rides an exercise bike and walks on a treadmill. He no longer drinks alcohol, and although Cecola could eat out as often as he likes, he cooks for himself and pays close attention to food labels to control his intake of fats, added sugar and sodium.

“Sodium is a killer,” he said. “You just have to watch the label.”

Cecola urges other heart failure survivors to keep a positive outlook. He cherishes seemingly small things like time spent with friends and family or enjoying a cup of coffee while reading a newspaper.

“Not until you really grasp the concept of life and death do you realize what a gift it is,” he said. “I’m on bonus time, and I might as well appreciate every minute of it.”