Who Says Life is Over after a Triple Bypass?
Born Again at 61– After Open Heart Surgery!
Marathons. Mountain treks. A triathlon. Sky diving. Hang gliding and scuba diving. By any standards, that’s a pretty hefty list of accomplishments for any individual. How much more impressive, then, that the credit for this list of high endurance activities goes to Dr. AKIL TAHER, a heart patient in his sixties!
Don’t let the debonair looks fool you—Dr. Akil Taher has proved to be a rugged adventurer chasing daredevil pursuits on land, sea, and air—and all after being a self-confessed couch potato till he was just over 60, when he underwent a triple bypass surgery.
Stories of heroic exploits, overcoming the odds, fighting back, and stretching one’s physical capabilities against all odds are aplenty in mainstream media. Rarely though do we come across inspiring journeys of physical strength and endurance in the South Asian community, as typically, our success is often in the realm of mental prowess, for example, in fields of business or academics. Now, here’s someone who’s turned that stereotype on its head––Dr. Akil Taher, the 60-plus physician from Gadsden, AL, who’s turned explorer and adventurer, with more feats to his credit than most people half his age would dare consider.
Ironically, it took an open-heart surgery in August 2009 for the then 61-year-old doctor to redefine the path of his life. “As a physician, I have seen patients who had bypass surgery who were done for—scared to do any activity because of the fear of a heart attack again. So it’s a vicious cycle. They are not active so they get depressed.”
What happened to Dr. Taher, though, dramatically altered the conventional script adopted by most heart patients, especially elderly ones. One day soon after his surgery, the nurses who had assisted him during his surgery jokingly reminded him of an announcement he’d made while waking from an anesthesia-induced slumber—of running at least a half marathon within the year if all went well with recovery. That casual recollection was a defining moment. Dr. Taher was back on his feet in short order. “I recovered from surgery so fast that on the third day I was [on] the treadmill. I saw everything better, I felt great, I just felt mellowed down, my fast Type A personality disappeared. The main focus of that time was that I had got out of this and I have to do something in my life; so, I chose running.”
Finishing his first half marathon in Nashville, TN—after only 8 months from his bypass surgery.
Training began in earnest and months of preparation ensued as he took on one challenge of physical and emotional duress over another, each competing higher in degree of difficulty as he aged into his 60s. What began as a procedure to clear out blocked arteries had by now morphed into an ongoing mission to transform Taher’s life.
He picked up his first half marathon, eight months after his triple bypass surgery. It was the 13.1-mile Nashville Country Music Half Marathon and took all of three long, grueling hours to complete. “I was so tired, so desperate but when I finished it I felt great.”
During this time, somebody mentioned a trek to Mt. Kailash in Tibet, and Taher signed up. Living conditions were squalid, 6-8 people squeezed in a room. “But it didn’t bother me. I finished it on foot, not on yak or horse as was recommended for heart patients like me.” He climbed the Dolma Pass of Mt. Kailash in Tibet, at 19,000 ft., the highest point that can be climbed in the region. This was about a year after the surgery.
At Dolma Pass, with Mt. Kailash in the background. At 19,000 ft., this is the highest point that can be climbed in the region. This was about a year after the surgery.
Taher squeezed in the Zooma Atlanta Half Marathon in November 2010, before participating in his first full marathon in 2011. He wrote to his friends earlier that year on his 63rd birthday, letting them know of his decision to run in the October Chicago Marathon, where he raised almost $11,000 single handedly for the American Heart Association.
Then came the most daunting task––Mount Kilimanjaro in 2012, the highest freestanding mountain in the world at 19,320 ft. In preparation for this, Dr. Taher climbed Pike’s Peak in Colorado (14,000 ft.) and Mt. Conti in the Smokies (12,000 ft.). “It was mentally and physically the most challenging thing that I have done, it was humbling.” There are five ecological zones from tropical to arid to Arctic at the peak. There is only ice and rock, and no animal or plant life at the highest point. “The last one-mile is the most horrendous, and some people don’t make it to the top. At 19,000 feet, with temperatures ranging from 0 to -5 degrees, and struggling for oxygen, every step was a massive task. When I reached the peak, it was amazing.”
At Uhuru peak, Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest freestanding mountain in the world at 19,320 ft. “It was mentally and physically the most challenging thing that I have done,” says Dr. Taher about this climb.
The radically transformed Taher was not one to rest for long. He soon commenced preparations for the Lake Lanier Islands Triathlon in 2013. “It dawned on me that if I can do all this, why couldn’t I do a triathlon!” Triathlons involve three disciplines––running, swimming and biking. Now an experienced marathon runner, Taher had no issues with the running aspect. But swimming and biking had him on a new regimen of training. “Mental drive is so powerful. I took my son’s road bike and fell a few times but then soon mastered it. As for swimming, I am scared of cold water so I bought a wetsuit but nobody told me you couldn’t do the breaststroke wearing one as you simply float on the surface of the water. So to train for it, I put ice in a bucket and poured it on myself everyday!” It paid off––he stood second in his age group. “If you put your heart and soul to anything in life you can do it,” he says.
He doesn’t recommend others his age and predicament duplicate what he does but encourages them to try. “My mind took me places that I never thought I would be able to. We belittle our minds, but if we only give it a chance, it’s amazing.”
Taher has since tried his hand at a few other high adrenalin activities––sky diving in Atlanta skies with his son, hang gliding in Brazil, white water rafting, a fun but demanding mud race with friends…Then in 2014, to show his support at the first anniversary of the Boston marathon bombings, Taher decided to participate and was doing brilliantly in preparation. Unfortunately, a few weeks prior, he tore a calf muscle while running. Ignoring medical advice, the never-say-never doctor decided to go ahead and walk the route, finishing in five hours and 48 minutes on a cold April day.
Within just four years from his triple bypass surgery, Dr. Taher was a prolific daredevil. Seen here, sky diving in Thomaston, Georgia...
...hang gliding in Rio, Brazil.
…and zip lining in the rain forest in Costa Rica.
It would be incorrect to assume though, that apart from the surgery, all is hunky-dory with this spirited senior. Dr. Taher brings his own set of medical issues to the table. Born with genetic predisposition to heart disease and stroke, he also has a running list of other health issues that would sufficiently scare the majority who would ever be at the receiving end of such diagnoses. For starters, there’s neck arthritis so bad that his radiologist wonders how he can move his neck at all. He also has general arthritis, benign positional vertigo, a fracture in his vertebrae about two years after the surgery, and an inflammation in the colon that landed him twice in the hospital.
…and white water rafting in Gauley River, West Virginia.
Worried yet? Not Dr. Taher. He is rather like a hero in a Bollywood masala––pile on the adverse conditions and he will come shining through. “People say, why do you do it? I do it to survive and in doing that I feel great. This in no way is going to increase my longevity but the quality of life has improved tremendously. I would wither away and die, if I don’t do anything anymore and because my genetics are such it would kill me faster. I see that I’m getting more energy than I ever had before, I feel I have been given a second chance.”
Proving just that, during our interview, he pulls out from his folder to proudly display his scuba diving certification. “I had written down a long time back that the next thing I would do was to swim with the sharks so I finally got myself an open water dive certification.” He credits 60 Minutes correspondent Anderson Cooper as inspiration (Cooper traveled to Botswana in 2013 to pursue the possibility of diving with crocodiles in the Nile).
Taher’s family has been a pillar of support through it all. “My wife thought I was crazy initially, that I was having some kind of midlife crisis, but now she’s my biggest supporter and has been great about it. She’s the only person [in our family] who has a fantastic genetic predisposition, but she runs about three miles 3-4 times a week. My son is a hospitalist at Northside, and big on exercising and eating right. My daughter is a federal government attorney in Atlanta and just started with running and trying to eat right. I did the Mercedes Birmingham Half Marathon with her.” Inspired by Taher, and to show her support, his daughter, Anushka Gehi, will be joining him in the Mumbai Half Marathon.
His wife Nafisa shares, “I do what regular people do. I don’t know how he does it but I wouldn’t,” she says, of his many age-defying adventures. “He’s a people’s person and Type A personality but being on a mountain opened his whole vision to being by yourself without being lonely. Kailash was the first step he ever took of figuring out to enjoy what is around you without having the buzz of everyone talking,” she shares about her husband of 41 years. “One of the lessons we should take from him is sometimes take time to listen to yourself or know what is going on with you. Don’t be so much in a rush for life that you’ve completely neglected yourself. I admire his grit and his determination, his idea of telling people life is not over after a bypass. It was baby steps but today I see a changed man from what I saw in the yester years. It has a lot to do with the mind.”
Taher is also very spiritual, participating in retreats organized by Sri Sri Ravishankar, practicing yoga and performing headstands with ease. “The biggest challenge that I have and cannot overcome is meditation but it helps to give the mind some rest. You should not be sleeping, be aware of your surroundings and still live in the moment; it’s the most difficult thing for me.”
The reformed doctor is now also an ardent yoga practitioner, and is able to perform shirshasana (head stands) with ease.
Taher has practiced family medicine in Northeast Alabama since the early 1990s at Doctor’s Medical Care, clinics he co-owns with his partner Dr. Pranav Mishra. He has cut back his time at his practice so that he now works about two weeks a month to accommodate his preparation toward his next escapade. He is up 5 am or earlier and completes all his training before setting foot for work at 8 am. “I was always a reasonably good physician but my outlook on that has also changed since the surgery. I am more peaceful, receptive, and a better listener. Patients feel very comfortable in my presence, much more than they felt before. I don’t come home tired, I feel fulfilled,” he says.
A little glimpse of the physician in him comes through when he speaks his mind on heart disease. “People should not get heart attacks or heart problems because it is preventable, if you change your lifestyle and diet. Especially in Indians, the biggest problem is we eat a lot of carbs, which is all turning into sugar and triglycerides; this causes fat cells in the abdomen and visceral obesity which is directly linked to the heart. We have smaller coronaries so [it is] easier for it to get clogged. I do not expect everyone with heart surgeries to climb mountains or run marathons, but at least they can be more physically and mentally active.”
And now, it’s time to tell the world the story of his remarkable life. Dr. Taher’s actor-producer nephew, Aasif Mandvi (The Internship and Million Dollar Arm) has encouraged him to write a book chronicling his exploits since his surgery. “I want to do this so I can help people who have got heart problems and have given up on life,” Dr. Taher shares.
Ruksana Hussain is a communication specialist and freelance writer, currently in the process of transition from Atlanta to Los Angeles, California.
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