Close call with calamity

Volleyball champ survives health scare
Photo courtesy J. Sargeant Reyolds CC

No one would ever accuse Fred McConnell of being a couch potato.

At 70, the program head and professor of engineering at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College (JSRCC) is slim and fit, and plays volleyball three nights a week or more.

So McConnell was not too alarmed at first when his heartburn wouldn't go away.

Even after two months, when the chest discomfort did not respond to medication and his doctor recommended a stress test, McConnell shrugged it off.

"I just had a stress test a couple of years ago," he told his doctor -- who checked his records and countered, "No, it's been seven."

In those seven years, said McConnell, stress tests have changed considerably. His 2005 test was conducted on a treadmill with the physician in the room, monitoring his reaction to exertion.

The 2005 diagnosis? Chronic heartburn.

This time, his stress test was the nuclear version, in which a radioactive dye is injected into the bloodstream to help create images of the heart muscle and valves at work. The pictures showed that one of McConnell's heart chambers wasn't filling up as it should, and he was referred to a cardiologist for a heart catheterization.

Still relatively unfazed, McConnell scheduled the catheterization -- then rescheduled it a week later so that he could play in a volleyball tournament first.

"I was afraid they'd find something," he admits now. And find something they did.

‘A real mess’
"I was only half awake," said McConnell, as he recalls coming out of the anesthesia after the catheterization. "But I remember the doctor telling me, 'You have a real mess in there.'"

Later, the cardiologist told McConnell he was surprised he had never had a heart attack -- though he saw signs that there may have been one of the "silent" variety.

McConnell consulted with a surgeon, who drew pictures of the three blockages and scheduled him for surgery two weeks later. Since McConnell was on spring break at the time, he asked the surgeon if it was okay to go back to work.

"That depends," answered the doctor. "Is your job stressful?"

McConnell chuckles as he recalls his answer.

"Not for me -- but maybe for my students!"

Finding a substitute to take over at JSRCC for the rest of the semester, McConnell underwent surgery on March 27. During the operation, a fourth blockage was found.

Nine weeks after his quadruple bypass surgery, McConnell traveled to Salt Lake City and won both silver and bronze medals at the USA Volleyball Open National Championships.

Rum and medals
More than 430 teams from around the world competed in the June championships.

A long-time member of the Richmond Volleyball Club, McConnell earned his silver medal as a member of the GROG-65 Team (pictured above) in one session, and his bronze medal in another session as a member of Team SOTA-70.

Team GROG, he says, takes its name from the acronym for "Greater Richmond Old Guys," but the name hardly fits any more. In addition to the Richmond players, McConnell has GROG teammates hailing from Texas, Colorado and Arkansas.

"Grog also was a rum drink for the British Navy," he adds, "so our uniforms have a rum bottle logo."

Last October, he won a gold medal in the Huntsman World Senior Games in St. George, Utah, on a 65's team that was a blend of RVC and Canadian players. In a couple of weeks, he will head to Utah for this year's Huntsman tournament, and he looks forward to it.

"The weather in Utah is beautiful this time of year," says McConnell. "And it's a well-run tournament -- like a mini-Olympics."

‘A second home’
A native of Gate City, Va., McConnell began playing intramural volleyball when he was a student at Virginia Tech. (The loyal Hokie and season ticket holder is actually a "triple dipper," having gotten his bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees in civil engineering at Tech.) During grad school, he says, "we would get the gym for an hour and play volleyball instead of basketball. The faculty was really into volleyball."

Moving to Richmond in 1972 to teach at the newly-opened JSRCC, following stints at Germana and Wytheville community colleges, McConnell was invited to play in volleyball leagues that eventually formed the basis of RVC (established in 1980).

"Now it's a second home," the Glen Allen resident says of RVC.

At his other second home, JSRCC, McConnell enjoys frequent visits and contacts from former students -- who, he says with a chuckle, "are often shocked to see I'm still teaching."

His daughter, a freshman at Christopher Newport University, recently told him that she had seen his reviews online on "Rate Your Professor" and noted that the only bad rating he got was for giving too much work.

"But I've never had a student come back and say, 'You worked me too hard,'" says McConnell.

"They say, 'Thank you for kicking my butt. I wouldn't have made it at [the four-year institution attended] if you hadn't."

Not long ago, in fact, McConnell says he got an email from a 1981 graduate of JSRCC who went on to get his bachelor's degree and professional engineer license at other schools.

"He said JSRCC was the best school he attended," recalls McConnell, "with the best professors."

At an age when most people have long ago retired, McConnell has no immediate plans to stop working -- or to stop playing volleyball. In fact, he not only goes to rehab once a week, but also frequently works out on the treadmill at Shady Grove YMCA.

"I don't sit around much. I have to [stay in shape] if I'm going to be competitive," he says.

After competing in the USA Open National Championships every year for 23 years, McConnell says he can't single out any one year as his most memorable -- but admits the 2012 Open is likely to stand out in his memory in years to come.

"Any time you get to the medal stand, that's an accomplishment on its own. But nine weeks after heart surgery?" he exclaims, making it clear that his close call with calamity renders the accomplishment all the sweeter.

And McConnell has a word of advice for anyone suffering from what seems to be chronic heartburn.

"If it doesn't go away, see your doctor," he says emphatically. "Especially if you're not active."

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