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Archive for Friday, July 18, 2003

Oerter’s health failing

Heart attack nearly kills ex-KU, Olympic great

July 18, 2003

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— Al Oerter was ready to die. He wasn't eager, but the four-time Olympic gold medalist was ready.

It was March 13. He was attending a meeting at his Fort Myers Beach condo.

"I started panting like a dog," Oerter said.

His blood pressure was racing. Congestive heart disease was attacking his system. His heart has a defibrillator. Doctors had said he needed a new heart.

Oerter, 66, staggered outside. The former Kansas University standout -- one of the great athletes of the 20th century, an Olympic champion in the discus -- had trouble maneuvering several steps.

"I couldn't breathe," Oerter said last week. "Sweating heavily. But it's almost calm. That's the closest I've ever been. ... If that's going to happen to me, there's no fear."

Oerter was rushed by ambulance to HealthPark Medical Center. In the emergency room, according to Oerter, he was zapped three times by heart-starting paddles. His wife Cathy was told by doctors that they weren't sure Al would make it.

Obviously, he survived.

At the hospital, Oerter was on medication, including a prescription for a drug called Amiodarone that had an attention-grabbing warning on the label.

"It says this is absolutely the drug of last choice," Oerter said.

Once on it, he understood why.

"I went on the Internet to find a little more about this stuff," Oerter said. "One of the things it said was that if Satan had a drug of choice this would be it."

The drug seemed to be almost as bad as the alternative.

"It damn near killed me," Oerter said. "The side effects of this drug. Skin turned gray. Couldn't look into bright light. Sweat. I mean I'd wake up in a pool. It went on and on. So many things. Given the side effects of that drug and shooting myself in the head, shooting myself I probably would have taken at that moment."

Despite the pain, he didn't lose his sense of humor, according to his wife.

"His hands were tied down," Cathy said. "He was motioning for a piece of paper."

Oerter scribbled a message about what many believe is a universal end-of-life phenomenon.

"The light at the end of the tunnel is bull----," Oerter wrote.

As Cathy told his story in their condo, she and her husband laughed.

It wasn't all laughs. That's for sure. Oerter didn't want to stay plugged to machines.

"He wanted it unplugged right then, to go to the safe deposit box and get the living will and unplug this," Cathy said. "He didn't want to be kept alive like that. I know that."

The attending physician didn't like that.

"The doctor said, 'Just give us a chance here,'" Cathy said.

Al told Cathy he was at peace with unplugging everything.

"He said, 'Look, I've had a great life,'" Cathy said. "'I wouldn't change anything. If I dropped dead tomorrow, it's OK.'"

The doctors were given a chance. Oerter didn't drop dead the next day or the day after that.

By any reckoning, Oerter has led an extraordinary life. Four times he made the U.S. Olympic team. Each time he went into the Games, he was an underdog. Each time he won gold: 1956 in Melbourne, Australia. 1960 in Rome. 1964 in Tokyo. 1968 in Mexico City.

He's the first Olympic athlete to post a four-peat in an event.

He showed enormous promise from a young age, setting a national prep record at Sewanhaka High School in New Hyde Park, N.Y., and an NCAA mark at Kansas.

Now, three months shy of turning 67, Oerter needs a new heart. He won't agree to a transplant.

"I just flat-out can't see it," Oerter said. "Just can't see it. I'm not going to get a new heart."

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