Paul Arinaga had been an avid outdoorsman his entire life. So when he went to renew his mountaineering club membership a few years ago near his home in Brussels, Belgium, he expected his doctor would be quick to sign the required medical certificate.

But during the exam she detected a heart murmur and made Arinaga promise to go to the hospital for a more thorough exam.

“I hate going to the hospital, and it’s likely that I would have procrastinated or not done it at all, except that I had given her my word,” said Arinaga, who grew up in Hawaii.

An electrocardiogram and other tests revealed that the then-48-year-old had mitral valve prolapse, a condition that allows blood to leak backward into the upper left chamber of the heart. He’d need surgery, the doctors told him.

“I had noticed that I was getting tired more easily and wasn’t in great shape like I used to be, but I thought it was because I had been doing less cycling and swimming,” Arinaga said.

There was some debate about whether a valve repair or valve replacement would be best, and Arinaga was relieved when it was determined that a repair would do. A valve replacement may have required Arinaga to take blood-thinning medication afterward, possibly preventing him from activities that could cause injury — including mountain climbing.

Arinaga decided to schedule the surgery quickly because his wife, Veronica, was pregnant, and he wanted to be healthy for her and the baby, and for his three older children. His surgery took place in September 2013 and his daughter, Leinani, was born in December.

Heart valve surgery survivor Paul Arinaga with his wife Veronica and daughter Leinani.

Heart valve surgery survivor Paul Arinaga with his wife Veronica and daughter Leinani.

The surgery was successful, but “recovery was really tough” he said. “Even weeks later when I was home, I could barely walk up a flight of stairs. I once had to have my older son hold me up when I was out doing errands because I thought I was going to collapse.”

Now, nearly three years after his surgery, Arinaga is back to mountain climbing. But the experience made a lasting impression.

“I consider it to be a wake-up call — a second chance,” he said.

Paul Arinaga_climbing2

In an effort to address questions and concerns that other patients might have about surgery, Arinaga wrote Heart Matters: Survive, Thrive and Learn From Your Heart Surgery. “The unknown is very scary,” he said.

Having a positive attitude is integral to recovery, Arinaga said, though he acknowledges it can be incredibly difficult to remain upbeat in the moment. That’s why he encourages people to “remember a time when you accomplished something physically and mentally challenging. Maybe you ran a marathon or climbed a mountain. Or maybe you achieved a smaller goal. But the key is to remember that moment and try to put yourself in that mental place again.”

Look at a health crisis — or any obstacle in life — as an opportunity for discovery and growth, he said.

“Follow the philosophy that when things happen that are unpleasant, try to see them in a more positive light that life is telling you something,” he said. “Use the experience to gain something positive and also recognize that lots of people are going through difficult things. We can help each other.”

Photos courtesy of Paul Arinaga