March 19, 2012

Making Sense: Berkman Taking It All to Heart

by Jac Coyne | | Coyne Archive | Twitter

Yelling and pacing will likely be a thing of the past for Jim Berkman after his heart attack last weekend.
© John Strohsacker

As odd as it may sound, Jim Berkman lived nearly his entire life waiting for last Sunday.

Sitting on a bench in the locker room of a private gym, the Salisbury head coach quickly understood that the burning in his throat and the sweat pouring down his forehead wasn't normal. As much as he wanted to delude himself into thinking it was something superficial – a touch of the flu or maybe a slight case of food poisoning – Berkman knew.

He's known it for years.

Berkman first understood that he might be fighting fate when one of his brothers, age 44 at the time, sat down on his favorite living room chair one evening and never stood up, his heart inexplicably stopping an hour before midnight. It became clearer when another brother, 52, had a stroke – a different mechanism than a heart attack, but likely caused by the same underlying factors – and was unable to speak for the last six years of his life.

Somewhere along the way the Berkman family DNA strand had its switches flipped, or perhaps turned off, making all of its hosts susceptible to heart disease.

Berkman knew he was at risk of having a heart attack, which he did last Sunday. The coach was hospitalized and had a pair of stents inserted to relieve a blockage.

He was more than willing to fight this possibility. You don't win nine national championships and produce a cache of All-Americans unless you're willing to have discipline.

That's why when the Salisbury coaches went out for a beer after the game, the assistants were inhaling wings and nachos while he had a chef salad. Or maybe a chicken sandwich. Without the mayo. He had a favorite breakfast joint that he'd frequent, but the order was nearly identical every time: meatless Southwestern omelet (egg whites only) in a rye wrap.

"I have a hamburger once every six months," Berkman said. "That's the extent of the red meat that I eat."

And then there were the triathlons; at least a hundred by Berkman's count. He even completed a marathon before his knee surgery seven years ago. Casual summertime bike rides are typically 25 miles, and don't bother calling or stopping by his office around noontime because Berkman will be working out. "Guys on the team know that you don't go to Coach Berkman's office between 11:45 a.m. to 1 p.m., because he's not going to be there," Berkman said. "It's kind of an unwritten rule here."

Berkman proudly proclaims that he's lighter than he was when he graduated from St. Lawrence in 1982, having lost 10 pounds last year via his exercise routine and healthy lifestyle.

"I did all the right things, it's just that the gene thing isn't good," he said.

* * *

"You can't hide from your genetics," confirmed Dr. Jeffrey Mandak, a cardiologist practicing in Wormleysburg, Pa. and a member of US Lacrosse's Sports Science and Safety Committee.

Alas, a patient's history – the ailments and allergies of first-degree relatives – is just part of the narrative when assessing an individual's susceptibility to heart disease. There are five in total, with smoking, high blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetes joining family history as the other key risk factors.

There are ways to pharmaceutically combat high blood pressure and cholesterol. Controlling diabetes, which produces a 70-percent heart disease rate among those who have it, requires a concerted effort of exercise, balanced diet and discipline. For smokers, the solution is black and white, literally.

There's no magic bullet, unfortunately.

"In Jim Berkman's case, it sounds like he did all that and still had a heart-attack," said Mandak. "Those are the people who need to be screened very closely. Even if you do everything, you can still have a heart attack, but there are things you can do. People with his risk-factor profile might benefit from an aspirin a day. They could also undergo a stress test."

For those entering the uncomfortable ages of life, it's important to confront potential issues earlier rather than when it's too late.

"The first thing is that you have to admit that you are at risk," said Mandak. "So you have to ask yourself those five questions: Do I have a family history? Am I a smoker? Do I have high blood pressure? Do I have diabetes? Do I have high cholesterol? If the answer to any of those questions is 'Yes,' you want to start modifying those risks as soon as you can. It's never too early to start addressing those issues."

* * *

Now that the inevitable has happened, Berkman has to balance the negative with the positive.

It's certainly easy to get swept away in the frustration.

"It's like a bad dream that I just woke up from," admitted Berkman. "It's hard to believe that it could be you when you did all of those things for so long. There's not a person I know who could have worked out more than I have for the past 35 years. Nobody could say that they did."

Still, in the wake of Berkman's heart attack, he received piles of positive feedback.

"It's a whole different ball game because now you're talking about your life." - Salisbury head coach Jim Berkman.
© John Strohsacker

There was the lacrosse fanatic Salisbury professor with a Middlebury diploma who, in perfect gallows humor, wrote Berkman, "Welcome to the two stent club!" There was another community member who cautioned Berkman about re-starting his workout routine too quickly because he had another heart attack when he did just that.

And then there was Norman Crawford. Crawford, the longtime president of Salisbury and the founder of the Sea Gulls men's lacrosse program, sent a note saying that he essentially underwent the same procedure Berkman had, but in 1987.

"Dr. Crawford said it's been 26 years later, he's 81, and he's lived a great life," said Berkman, recalling the letter. "He had to stop smoking, and he started to exercise, but exercising for him is like walking a mile a day!"

While the various pep talks have had an impact, Berkman takes a measure of satisfaction knowing that all of his hard work was actually worthwhile.

"If my heart wasn't that fit, it wouldn't have sustained what it sustained and I'd probably be dead," he said. "If I wasn't so fit, it would have happened a long time ago at a younger age. You try to look at the jar being half full and not half empty, because you have to move on with your life."

Berkman is correct in his assessment.

"The more you exercise, the better your heart is able to tolerate a heart attack," said Mandak. "You have built up a great collateral system. If one area is blocked off, you have another area that can feed the area that is not getting enough blood. Often times, the more people work out, the better they are at handling a heart attack."

This isn't over. Berkman saw the image of his heart and a large section of it was black – a sign of significant damage that may or may not heal.

"I've got to continue to eat right and I have to control the stress in my life and take a deep breath instead of responding to some situations," he said. "You know coaches: everything's a big thing even when they really aren't big things."

The day that Berkman knew would come arrived last Sunday. Regardless of the national titles, triathlons or egg white omelets, everything has changed.

"It's a whole different ball game because now you're talking about your life."

Game Balls

Kam Bumpus, Soph., Midfield – Le Moyne
Squaring off against No. 2 Adelphi, Bumpus won 12-of-19 faceoffs, snagged nine ground balls and buried a goal to help the Dolphins upend the Panthers, 9-6.

Peter Carbonneau, Jr., Attack – St. Thomas
The Tommies rolled to a 3-0 weekend, including a win over No. 1 Davenport, helped by Carbonneau. He finished with seven goals and four assists, including a five-point day against the Panthers.

Joseph Fiorucci, Jr., Goalie – Tampa
Mars Hill entered Saturday's game with Tampa undefeated, but thanks to Fiorucci and his 18 saves on the day, the Lions picked up their first loss.

Rich Meares, Jr., Midfield – Dayton
The Long Island product has the best game of his career against Briarcliffe, scoring five goals, helping the No. 3 Flyers beat the No. 7 Bulldogs, 17-13.

Matt Obermeyer, Soph., Attack – Saint Leo
In a pivotal Deep South match-up, Obermeyer scored five goals and assisted on a sixth to lead the Lions to a 13-9 victory over Wingate.

Kyle Starr, Jr., Midfield – Bates
For the second straight year, the Bobcats knocked off Wesleyan – the Cardinals entered the game ranked No. 20 – thanks to Starr. He factored in on five (2g, 3a) of the Bobcats six goals in the 6-5 win.

Max Voumard, Jr., Midfield – Lynchburg
With the senior class searching for their first-ever win against Roanoke, Voumard scored three goals – including the game-winning strike in overtime – along with an assist.

Patrick White, Sr., Midfield – Western New England
The Golden Bears traveled to Nazareth and pulled out the one-goal win thanks to five goals and an assist from White. Three of his five goals came in the decisive fourth quarter.

Power Fives

NCAA Division II
1. Mercyhurst (4-0) – We'll have to wait until Saturday to see if there were any ramifications from having a short week heading into the Dowling game.
2. Dowling (4-0) – The Lions are two-thirds of the way through their three-game ECC gauntlet. Only Mercyhurst remains next Saturday.
3. Le Moyne (5-0) – The names might have changed, but the Dolphins are still in the business of grinding down opponents, like they did to Adelphi.
4. Merrimack (2-0) – After nearly two weeks off, the Warriors have a three-game warm-up to prepare for Adelphi on March 31 at home.
5. Limestone (9-1) – This spot was a toss-up between the Saints and Adelphi, but we'll give Limestone the nod at this point.

NCAA Division III
1. Salisbury (8-0) – There's only one ranked team left on the Sea Gulls schedule, and Stevenson may not even be in the Top 10 by then.
2. Tufts (3-0) – The Jumbos solidify their spot at No. 2 after an impressive business trip to Hoboken. Stevenson will still be the litmus test, however.
3. Cortland (4-0) – The seven oppponents in March have a combined record of 22-9 and five are in the poll. Cortland is 3-0 vs. those teams to this point.
4. RIT (4-0) – The Tigers are still giving up a ton of goals – Fisher notched another 10 – but the offense appears to have picked up from last spring.
5. Amherst (4-0) – Wins over Endicott and Bowdoin in a four-day span vaults the Jeffs into the Fives. They won't be threatened until April.

MCLA Division I
1. Colorado State (6-0) – Still plenty of heavy lifting left for the Rams, but they won't leave the state until they pack up for Greenville.
2. UC Santa Barbara (8-0) – Gauchos take a two-week break to prep for the trip to Colorado. They should have Taylor Gilbert back by then.
3. Cal Poly (6-1) – There appears to be only two more potential losses (CSU, Chapman) on the schedule this year for the Mustangs.
4. Brigham Young (8-1) – Until the Upper Midwest can up its game a little bit, the Cougars might be wise to use their travel dollars elsewhere.
5. Chapman (9-2) – When the Panthers give up double-digit goals, they lose. If they keep their opponents under double-digits, they win. Simple math.

MCLA Division II
1. St. Thomas (5-0) – Even after the big win on Friday night over Davenport, the Tommies handled their business well during the rest of the weekend.
2. Dayton (6-0) – The three-week layoff didn't bother the Flyers' offense, anyway. They'll need to keep it going against an angry Davenport team.
3. Westminster (7-0) – Two more weeks until St. Thomas comes to town and we get to see how good the Griffins are.
4. Grand Valley State (6-0) – It's not GVSU's signature unit, but the Lakers defense has done a nice job this year. They'll need it against Dayton.
5. Grand Canyon (7-0) – The last Division II hurdle awaits for the 'Lopes this weekend when they travel to face defending SLC champ Fullerton.

Monday Notebooks

NCAA Division II: Gaudreau trying to continue the work done by his predecessors at St. Anselm.
NCAA Division III: There's not star system at Cabrini, and it's one of the reasons they beat Gettysburg.
MCLA Division I: There's a reason for Oregon's slow start last year, and the Ducks coach takes the blame.
MCLA Division II: Davenport's brutal weekend in St. Louis feels vaguely familiar.

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