Editor’s Note: American Heart Month is observed in February. Each Thursday this month, the Herald will publish a heart-related article.

CLINTON – One year after undergoing open heart surgery, a Clinton city councilman has reached the point of full recovery.

“I got my okie dokie from my cardiologist about a month ago,” Gregg Obren said about the surgery to address a heart murmur. “He said you’re doing fine, everything’s working good, your ultrasound is great, your valve is working fine. I’ll see you in six months like I always do.”

His heart murmur was discovered four years ago during an annual physical after Obren’s wife, Madonna, had noticed he’d been feeling very tired.

To find out why, a cardiologist performed ultrasounds, echocardiograms, and a transesophageal echocardiogram, or TEE, that uses echocardiography to assess the structure and function of the heart.

“They found that I only had two doors on my aorta valve,” Obren says, “and that’s genetic.”

As a result, the volume of blood shown in the ultrasounds to be moving through his heart was reduced by about 15 percent. That amount was instead either staying in his heart or backing up through his veins.

Six months later, another ultrasound showed it reduced by about 40 percent.

“The valves of my heart were actually giving up,” Obren says.

His doctor decided to schedule him for surgery.

After discussing their options, it was decided they’d do open heart surgery. According to Yale Medicine, in this type of surgery, an incision is made down the front of the chest through which the surgeon can then cut through the breastbone to get to the heart. The patient breathes with the help of a ventilator and is connected to a machine that keeps blood circulating through the body but allows the heart to remain still.

It was also decided that instead of a mechanical valve with which he’d have had to take a certain chemical for the remainder of his life, they would opt for bovine valve replacement, using the strong and flexible tissue that surrounds a calf’s heart.

“The joke is,” Obren says, “I have an uncontrollable urge for a glass of milk every day.”

Harvard Health reports this type of valve typically lasts about 15 years. Being very similar in tissue physiology to human valves, a patient doesn’t usually require any kind of long-term blood-thinning medication after surgery, but this is also a relatively new procedure that holds the risk of the valve deteriorating over time.

In 2007, one of Obren’s kidneys had been removed due to renal carcinoma. Five or six years later, his appendix had burst during district softball tournaments the he was refereeing. So when faced with undergoing open heart surgery, he wasn’t very afraid of what the possible outcomes could be.

“It’s going to be what it’s going to be,” he says. “It was definitely harder on Madonna.”

During the 6 1/2-hour surgery at UnityPoint Health’s Trinity Rock Island Hospital, she waited. Every half hour, a nurse or doctor would call her in the waiting room to let her know that everything was going well.

“When the surgeon talked with my wife afterwards,” Obren says, “his comment was, you know, I’m glad we did this now, because if we didn’t do it, Gregg probably wouldn’t be around with us too much longer.”

Within 26 hours of surgery, Obren was getting up with the help of physical therapists and walking, first to the door of his room and back, then a little farther each time thereafter. He’d do this two or three times a day.

Over 60 years old at the time of surgery in early 2022, Obren says it was easy for him to get back up so quickly afterward because of the shape he was in prior to it.

Originally from Joliet, Illinois, Obren and his family moved to Dover, New Jersey when he was 4 years old. He attended high school there before his father was transferred to work at the Rock Island Arsenal as a directorate of product assurance. Obren says he fell in love with the Iowa State University campus and desired a career in biology. He took interest and aptitude tests after biology proved not to be a strength of his, and the results suggested he go into leisure services, or recreation and sports management.

Thirty-seven years later, in 2017, Obren retired as director of Clinton’s Parks and Recreation Department. He’d also served two terms on the school board for a total of eight years, one of which he was president. Currently, he’s on City Council and was also appointed to the Clinton County Development Association, the Mayor’s Youth Commission, Advisory Appointments Committee, and others.

He’s commander of the local Sons of the American Legion chapter, works unloading deliveries at Kohl’s department store, referees local sports, and has also been a lifeguard since he was 15 years old.

Six days after surgery, Obren was discharged from the hospital and instructed not to do anything for about six months.

“For the better part of probably a month,” he says, “I sat in a chaise lounge chair.”

He continued to get up and walk around every so often. In March, when the weather was nice enough to, he’d walk with Madonna around the block or around the park.

“Madonna’s my rock,” Obren says.

He started refereeing football games again and says he felt fine. When basketball and soccer games start again in a couple months, he plans to begin refereeing again for those games as well.

Obren was told by his doctor that he could get back into a pool as soon as the stitches from his surgery were out. On Mondays, Wednesday, and Fridays, for about a month, he’d attend cardiac rehab at MercyOne, and on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, he’d go to the YWCA for aquatics classes, working different muscle groups six days a week.

“I just got in the pool and started slow with everybody,” he says. “I’m back to being full throttle with everything.”

The turning point for him was when he decided to tell aquatics director Ben Evers, “I want to try to get the brick.”

The lifeguard brick test involves the retrieval of a 10-pound brick from the bottom of a pool within one minute and 40 seconds, a task required for certification that many young aspiring lifeguards are never able to accomplish.

Obren successfully retrieved the brick and did so five seconds faster than when he’d passed the test prior to surgery. It was then he says that he knew he was back.

Obren and Madonna are looking forward to traveling later this year, marking their 35th anniversary with a trip to Hawaii.

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