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Risks, Hearts, and Martial Arts

Photo Courtesy: Stanford University

As the Boeing 787 crept through a layer of clouds that shrouded Chicago O’Hare International Airport, revealing an atmospheric desert that seemed to stretch for miles as the clouds joined forces, I was on my way to Honolulu. This was not a usual trip for vacation, or by my standards of “normal” to go and teach a seminar, but to embark on a transformative journey for every medical student: clinical rotations.

As a medical student at Uniformed Services University and therefore an active duty member of the military, I have the unique opportunity to learn about the practice of medicine at military medical centers all over the country. So, why am I writing about this in a Black Belt Magazine article?

The first reason, in jest, is that there is something about being 30,000 feet in the air that inspires the mind to write. The second, more important, reason is that I discovered the perfect example of a lesson I have taught students who aspire to be great performance martial artists countless times. In fact, I believe this idea to be the greatest link between my dual passions as a martial artist and student doctor. The lesson is rather cliché, something many martial artists are told as a white belt, that “if you believe in yourself there is no limit to what you can do.” Growing up in the Hwang’s Martial Arts taekwondo system, every belt had a sort of proverb associated with it, and that quote was one of them.

At the end of a lecture by the dean of my medical school a few months ago, he recommended the book Every Second Counts, in which Donald McRae tells the story of four esteemed heart surgeons and their race to perform the first successful human heart transplant. I asked my parents for the book for Christmas, and this 9 hour and 30-minute flight was the perfect opportunity to read it. I’ve paused my reading to write this article at the end of chapter two.

One of the critical steps in making heart transplantation possible, although they didn’t know it at the time, was the ability to restart the heart after it sat cold and blue for an hour while a heart-lung machine oxygenated the blood for the rest of the body. It is as much of a miracle as it sounds, a testament to the resiliency of the heart.

On July 22nd, 1958, at the research center of my alma mater Stanford University, Drs. Norman Shumway and Richard Lower discovered that it was possible. The aorta, a very large vessel that delivers blood from the powerful left ventricle of the heart to the rest of the body, of a 42-pound dog was cross-clamped to obstruct blood flow, rendering the canine dependent on the machine.

The two surgical pioneers waited an agonizing sixty minutes while the heart was full of cold saline before the clamp was removed and the heart began to fibrillate (essentially a disorganized tremor of the heart muscle). Shumway shocked the heart, and it started to beat at a regular rhythm with the continued assistance of the oxygenating machine. After another half hour, the pump was turned off, the dog was sewn back together, and shortly after the dog awoke and licked his surgeon on the hand.

Shumway looked at his colleague and said, “we could do anything…” This remarkable medical discovery never would have been made if Shumway and Lower did not think there was the slightest chance it was possible.

The standard of care for open heart surgery until that point was to attempt to repair an atrial septal defect (a hole in the wall that normally separates the two collecting chambers on the top of the heart) in under 6 minutes so that oxygenated blood could be sent back to the brain before permanent damage occurred.

Most physicians would have called Shumway and Lower foolish to believe they could stop the heart for an hour, but they believed in themselves.

It is a powerful story that I feel applies directly to sport martial arts. Surgeons have to manage the additional risk that a failed experiment will cost the life of an animal, and even more so that a failed operation will cost the life of another human being.

What risk does a martial arts competitor have?

That they drop their weapon and get disqualified? That they don’t win a particular tournament that is going to happen again next year? In the grand scheme of risk-taking, every “risk” that a sport martial artist takes is one that only impacts oneself.

A mistake on the tatami does not constitute the loss of life for animal or man. So if Shumway and Lower were willing to risk the life of dogs and the eventual human patients they would attempt the technique on in the interest of saving more lives in the future, why wouldn’t you take the risk of a minor athletic setback for a chance to earn yourself a spot in sport karate history?

I understand it is a stretch, that in many ways this is an apples-to-oranges discussion that effectively just allows me to ramble about the two things I love most in this world outside of my wife and family, martial arts and medicine.

However, the point that I am trying to make is that competitors should be daring, because the risk is not actually as great as what we sometimes make it out to be. In my time as a weapons competitor, my journey effectively began when my dad and I constructed a strategy to do more releases than had ever been done in a weapons form to our knowledge, and balance the form with striking combinations. It was unconventional and somewhat controversial, but it worked.

That was in 2010, and by 2012 I became the first person to throw the bo up and spin twice before catching it behind my back in competition.

In 2013 I dared to try to catch the bo on the back of my hand, and by the summer of that same year I upgraded the technique to catch the bo with only a finger. I truly believe that the risks I was willing to take as a competitor, the determination to do what had not been done before, is what allowed me to achieve the blessings I can now reflect on.

If it worked for me, I know it can work for you as well. In martial arts, in medicine, and in life, there is truly no limit to what you can achieve as long as you believe in yourself and put in the work. People will tell you that it won’t work, that it is impossible. To that, I respond and leave you with my favorite quote, which happens to be by Walt Disney: “It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.”

*Opinions expressed in this article are my own and do not reflect those of the Uniformed Services University or the United States Army.

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