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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

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.

Agencies combine on new entry point to Chickahominy


Canoeing and kayaking enthusiasts soon will have a new access point to the Chickahominy River. VDOT, the James River Association and Henrico County Parks and Recreation are teaming up to establish a new site in Eastern Henrico.

The James River Association negotiated the deal with VDOT to procure official access to the area located just east of I-295 on North Airport Road in Sandston. The site includes a park-and-ride commuter lot bordering the Chickahominy River and has been an unofficial launch site used by paddlers for years. > Read more.

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Entertainment

Is there an Echo in here?

‘Earth to Echo’ aims to become this generation’s ‘ET’
It’s no secret that all found-footage genre movies are the same. Grab a couple of characters, give one of them a camera, and expose them to something supernatural that’s content to lurk just off-screen until the last five minutes. Everything else will just fall into place.

But that formula isn’t particularly family friendly, if only because that thing waiting a few feet to the left of the cast is usually plotting their violent doom.

That’s what sets Earth to Echo apart from the pack. It, too, follows a group of characters armed with a camera and a tendency to encounter unknown life forms. But all those familiar parts have been rearranged just enough to make it suitable for a much younger audience. > Read more.

Weekend Top 10


An eclectic array of events are taking place this weekend throughout the county. In the West End, we have the Richmond Wedding Expo, the Under the Stars Family Film Series and Henrico Theatre Company’s production of “Pump Boys and Dinettes.” In the eastern part of the county, we have a blood drive at the Eastern Henrico Recreation Center, Gallmeyer Farm’s annual Sweet Corn Festival and an origami workshop at Fairfield Library. For all our top picks this weekend, click here! > Read more.

New Italian restaurant opens in Short Pump

Charlottesville's Bella’s Restaurant recently opened a location in Short Pump Village, at 11408 West Broad Street. The restaurant is owned by Valeria Biesnti, a native of Rome who arrived in the U.S. at age 21 and later became a U.S. citizen. With her restaurants, Bisenti has sought to create an ambiance that welcomes diners in a casual setting, like her favorites from her hometown. > Read more.

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CharacterWorks, Inc. will present “Footloose” at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. July 25-27 at The Robins Theatre at Steward School, 11600 Gayton Rd. Tickets are $13 to $17. CharacterWorks is… Full text

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