Nick LaVecchia took a trip to NY to snap some intimate shots of professional surfer, Mikey DeTemple, whilst recovering from heart surgery. Mikey also shared his incredible story with him – a story spanning decades of health problems and surgeries. What resonates from his story is not so much his adversities, but instead, his determination not to be defined by them. Mikey lives the way we all should – without fear or self-pity. He also lives with something few of us have inside us – a pace maker. Get well soon, MD.
Interview and Photography By Nick LaVecchia
Nick LaVecchia: So I feel like I know you pretty well. We’ve logged some serious miles in the car and on planes, but not until recently did I become aware you’ve been living with a serious heart condition. You’ve had a pacemaker for over 10 years and recently went through a pretty heavy surgery. Give me some back story on how this all came about?
Mikey DeTemple: Yeah, it’s a pretty crazy story. My Mom and Dad loved Montauk growing up. In the ’70s and ’80s they were out there all the time. Surfing, fishing, camping, running through the dunes to get to the ocean. Sometime around the late ’80s my Mother got very sick. She was misdiagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis and later misdiagnosed again with Lupus. It wasn’t until around 1991 that she was finally diagnosed with Lyme Disease. At that point she had it for nearly 10 years before it was diagnosed. Fast forward to 12 year old me. I was a nerdy Long Island kid who just played ice hockey. I hated the beach. During a game I was checked pretty hard and thought I had broken a rib, so my parents took me to the hospital after the game. Protocol at any hospital is if a patient comes in with chest pain, they get an EKG – regardless of age. An hour after that I was being transported to the children’s hospital 2 hours away with a heart condition called 3rd degree heart block. It was explained as congenital – something I was born with, but I was completely asymptomatic – not showing any signs of having it. I spent five days in the hospital while the pediatric cardiologists decided if they were going to implant a pacemaker or not. The end decision was that if it wasn’t broken, don’t fix it. It was found out years later that the only way to get 3rd degree heart block was from Lyme Disease. My Mom had Lyme while I was In Utero, and the virus attacked my heart, leaving me with complete heart block.
3rd degree heart block at age 12? So now what?
Luckily, I had no symptoms of having it. I was doing just fine for 12 years with it. My doctors told me at some point things would change and I would need a pacemaker – we would just have to keep an eye on it. Every six months. Complete heart block is pretty rare, especially for someone my age. It’s usually something that develops over time from other heart issues and starts off as 1st degree. Basically, I have no electrical system in my heart. The ventricles have no way of knowing what they are doing, so they open and close out of synch. This causes a very slow heart rate. My resting rate was around 32-33 bpm’s and it would drop down into the high teens when I slept at night. During extreme exercise, it would spike around 65 bpm’s.
Wow. A lot to process at a young age. So fast forward to today, you’ve since had a few pacemakers replaced from your chest and recently just underwent another major surgery to replace some broken leads?
Yeah, I had my first pacemaker implanted in 2003. I had been in Australia for three months living in Belongil beach with Dane Peterson and CJ Nelson. Surfing my guts out. I was feeling pretty shitty the last few weeks of my stay and passed out a few times. I went to my cardiologist the week I got back home and he said it was time. I had the pacemaker implanted a few days later. Since then, I’ve had a few mishaps and broken a few lead wires and dislodged the pacemaker a few times. I’m a little outside the demographic these things are made for, so I’ve had a few doctors do some pretty inventful things to keep things in place. This last one was a pretty serious one though. I broke one of my leads and at this point I already have two broken leads in my heart. My doctor thought it was time to clean it all up and get those broken wires out of my body. The two that had to be removed have been in my heart since 2003, so it’s pretty tricky to get them out. There’s a lot of scar tissue formed around the wires and the wrong movement when extracting them could tear the heart muscle. Actually, this procedure has only been around for the last decade and there’s only a few hospitals in the States doing the lead extractions. I’m lucky to live near one of the best heart hospitals in the world, Columbia University’s heart center at NY Presbyterian.
Shit. I’m feeling pretty fortunate at the moment. So the doc now says rest for a couple months and then your good to get back to taking shorebreak beatings?
Pretty much. The next few weeks are pretty important that I don’t do anything strenuous while the new wires form scar tissue around my heart. If I did something stupid, it could just pull out and everything would have to be redone. I’ve got about 5 and half weeks left of doing absolutely nothing. Just in time for hurricane season.