By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS

Nick WeberNick Weber had his life all planned out. He had just graduated from the University of Texas at Austin and was studying to become a doctor. Then, at age 22, he had a heart attack.

It happened in 2013 while cycling at White Rock Lake in Dallas. Midway through the ride, he felt a pulling sensation on the right side of his collarbone.

He thought maybe he was training too hard or maybe he was dehydrated. He tried to shake it off, telling himself to “push through it” and finish the ride. But “something was just not right,” Weber said.

It wasn’t until he got home and experienced a massive chest pain that he decided to go to the hospital. It felt like someone had run a sword through his chest, Weber said.

He wasn’t far off. Doctors found a tear in his coronary artery wall.

Weber struggled to accept that the athletic identity he had fostered since high school may not be possible anymore. At the time of his heart attack, he often biked up to 300 miles a week through Austin’s Hill Country.

He was also scared. He admitted that while cardiac rehabilitation was a physical challenge, returning to everyday life was a psychological one. It took Weber more than a year to rebuild his confidence.

Weber said he listens to his body more now and gets more sleep. He’s also using his experience to help advance medicine.

In January, Weber posed a question to researchers at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas: How far could young, athletic heart attack survivors safely push themselves? With approval from his doctors, Weber volunteered himself as the test subject.

Weber’s goal is to prove that it is possible for heart attack survivors like himself to return to a highly physical lifestyle.

It was something he and his doctors had worried about, given the little research that exists on young athletes with heart-related issues.

One problem in figuring the question out is the tendency for cardiac rehabilitation facilities to use only moderate levels of exercise, Weber said. Instead of using a cookie-cutter methodology, rehab should aim to push people to where they want to go and can go, he said.

Researcher Jenny Adams, Ph.D., and cardiac rehab manager Tim Bilbrey, both of Baylor Heart and Vascular Hospital, are assisting in the research, and Hincapie Sportswear, Pioneer Electronics, Shimano and Zevlin provided equipment for the study.

Weber goes to Baylor three times a week for high-intensity exercise on a stationary bike. During the sessions, Adams and Bilbrey monitor Weber’s heart rate.

In traditional cardiac rehab programs, Weber would never get the opportunity for high-intensity exercise, the Baylor researchers said. But because they want Weber to be confident enough to safely ride in groups and competitive races, they are having Weber push himself.

Weber, Adams and Bilbrey hope to eventually publish their research so that it may help other young athletes in a similar situation.

The research can also hopefully give athletes who have heart attacks some peace of mind that they can completely recover and live an active life, said Weber, who hopes to attend medical school in fall 2016.

“You don’t have to live a life of fear because you have this incident,” he said.