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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."


Community

Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden raises admission $1

Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden’s admission has increased by $1 across all categories. Admission is now $12 for adults; $11 for seniors ages 55 and older; and $8 for children ages 3–12. Admission remains free for children ages 3 and younger and for members.

The last price increase was in 2011, before the Garden consistently hosted Butterflies LIVE! (which is included with admission). > Read more.

Garden tails

The threat of bad weather didn’t keep visitors away from Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden July 10 for the facility’s weekly Flowers After 5 event (which pairs music and food with a chance to stroll the garden) and its monthly Fidos After 5 (which allows dog owners to bring their pets with them to enjoy the evening). > Read more.

Western Henrico Rotary helps fund Midwives For Haiti Jeep


Thanks in part to a $10,000 gift from the Western Henrico Rotary Club, another bright pink Jeep modified to travel extremely rough terrain has been delivered to Midwives For Haiti so that more pregnant women in the quake-ravaged country will have access to prenatal care and a greater chance of surviving childbirth.

The funds were raised at the annual casino night held in February, club president Adam Cherry said. The Rotary Club also helped purchase the Virginia-based charity’s first pink jeep three years ago. > Read more.

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Entertainment

‘Top Chef’ finalist to open Willow Lawn restaurant

A finalist in the Bravo television show Top Chef is bringing one of his four restaurant chains to Henrico County.

Bryan Voltaggio, who was the runner-up of the sixth season of Top Chef, (finishing second to his brother, Michael) and his business partner, Hilda Staples, will open their third Family Meal restaurant, at Henrico's Willow Lawn shopping center. The restaurant is expected to open early next year. > Read more.

US Army Field Band to perform in Henrico Aug. 3

The United States Army Field Band will present a free public performance at Deep Run Park in Henrico on Sunday, Aug 3 at 3 p.m.

Members of the band are soldiers who also serve as “musical ambassadors of the Army” and perform for schools and communities nationwide.

The Concert Band will be performing along with the Soldiers’ Chorus. > Read more.

Weekend Top 10


Get up and dance – square dance, that is – with the Tuckahoe Square Dance Club tonight! More musical events this weekend include family-friendly karaoke at Aunt Sarah’s Pancake House, the United States Army Field Band and Soldiers’ Chorus Concert and the Henrico Teen Theatre Company’s production of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” For all our top picks this weekend, click here! > Read more.

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