USTA Mid-Atlantic describes the tough road to rehabilitation from open-heart surgery and a ruptured Achilles tendon, all to play tennis once more.
© Jen Pottheiser
By Nicholas J. Walz, USTA.com & John Britton, USTA Mid-Atlantic, special to USTA.com
From the time he turned 60, John Britton had survived open-heart surgery and a severe rupture of his Achilles tendon. But Britton did not quit on life, or on an active lifestyle. When facing arduous rehabilitation, it was the allure of tennis and of reuniting with his teammates that inspired the Richmond, Va., native. His perseverance led to his recent participation in the USTA League Super Senior National Championships in Surprise, Ariz., once more alongside his Mid-Atlantic section mates.
In his own words, here is John Britton:
Like many USTA members, I learned to play tennis in adult recreational leagues in the 1970s, and I have thoroughly enjoyed the social and competitive aspects of this great sport for more than four decades. And like many Super Seniors, I have had my share of medical/physical obstacles to overcome in order to continue playing at a competitive level.
My primary challenges involved a diagnosis of hypertrophic obstructive cardiomyopathy (HOCM), and several years later, atrial fibrillation (AF). The symptoms I felt from HOCM, or what’s more effectively described as the thickening of the left ventricle of the heart, began in the late 1990s. I would faint, or feel faint without exertion; I’d experience a pounding of the heart while at rest and felt a lack of blood flow to my feet when exercising.
My genetic heart disease responded to medication and allowed me to play on Captain P.J. Mahoney’s 1999 Senior 4.0 Mid-Atlantic team, where I’ve been part of group that regularly qualified for USTA League National Championships – yet for a period of six years between 2002 and 2008, my condition progressed to the point that I was no longer competitive and I eventually stopped playing USTA League tennis.
One heart surgery allowed me to get back on the tennis court, but it was only temporary, and by 2010 AF returned and the HOCM condition had become critical. In the summer of 2010, I had successful open- heart surgery, averting my risk of sudden heart failure. Still, my future physical capacity was uncertain.
After a long convalescence, Captain Mahoney accepted me on his 2011 Senior 4.0 team and I substituted when needed. Just being around my friends was great moral support and provided the incentive for me to try to play at a competitive level. The team represented Mid-Atlantic at the 2011 Senior Nationals at Indian Wells, Calif. Due to an injury to one of the main roster players, I got the call to compete! I played in all of our matches, and while we didn’t win, I felt blessed with the opportunity to play tennis after all that happened in the previous year.
On June 1, 2012, a new obstacle arose quite unexpectedly – a total rupture of my left Achilles tendon while attempting to retrieve a drop shot. The Achilles injury has been the most difficult recovery I have experienced, primarily due to the atrophy that occurs after several months in a cast, and the fear one has of hearing that loud snap again. While the team went on with the season, I concentrated on learning how to function with very limited mobility. Worse yet, an infection led to a second surgery in October.
Just before the surgery, I received a call from our Co-Captain Wayne Watkins: "John, we just won the Sectionals and we are going to the Nationals in April!" I congratulated Wayne and thanked him for letting me know how the team performed. But Wayne wasn’t finished. He continued: "We have two players scheduled for major surgery who will likely not be able to play and you need to be ready to go."
I was elated at the thought. "No problem, Wayne," I said. "I’ll be ready."
My daily workouts began a week after the first surgery, in June. I could only work my upper body, but having April as a goal made going to the gym my most important activity. In September, I began rehab on my Achilles before the infection put me back on the operating table in October. Two months later, a final roadblock: a third heart surgery. Combining the procedure and new medications has prevented further AF issues.
My Christmas present was hitting tennis balls for the first time in mid-January. Winters in Richmond are too cold for outdoor tennis, so my team members let me play on their indoor contract time. After a few months, I was able to play reasonably well. However, moving quickly on the repaired tendon was still tenuous. I questioned if I was ready for national competition.
Despite the questions, Nationals arrived in Surprise. On Delta wings and lots of prayers, I had made it along with Captains Mahoney, Watkins and the rest of the Mid-Atlantic team. We finished with three wins and one loss. Playing doubles, I won two matches and lost two. What’s important is that at 62 and through all of this, I feel healthy. The experience has made me more appreciative of my teammates, my amazing doctors and nurses, my family support and God’s grace.
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