The worst part was the angioplasty.
Despite all that Aart Looye has endured over the past 15 months – the stroke; the weeks of painstaking, frustrating rehab; the blocked arteries and the irregular heartbeat – that, the 71-year-old South Surrey triathlete says, was the part that was nearly too much to take.
The angioplasty included a cardiac catheterization, in which stents and a balloon are installed in the heart, and arteries are cleared of blockages by a tiny, drill-like catheter inserted into his arm.
Recounting the procedure, which was done as he continued his recovery from a stroke suffered in February of last year, still raises the hackles of Looye, months later.
“They strap your… arm down and they just jam that drill right into your artery and off it goes. They don’t even warn you when they’re about to do it, they just do it. It hurt like hell,” Looye chuckled, retelling the story while sitting on the patio of a coffee shop near his South Surrey townhouse.
“I had words for those guys, believe me.”
For Looye – a longtime competitive swimmer and triathlete, as well as a former candidate in both civic and federal elections – rare is the moment he doesn’t have words for somebody, and a recent afternoon is no different. Over the course of an hour, he holds court on all manner of topics – local development, the new Grandview Heights Aquatic Centre and Surrey’s mayors past and present, among them – often peppering his critiques with enough choice words to make one wonder if the CRTC should put him on a five-second delay.
But as those who know Looye will attest, his fiery attitude is part of his charm.
It’s also a pretty good indicator that he’s back to his old self – even if the left side of his body still doesn’t work.
• • •
It was a day in February of last year that began like any other.
Looye woke up early and went off to the Tong Louie YMCA to teach his Thursday morning cycle-fit class. He ran the class, returned home and went on with his day.
Then, after dinner, as he prepared to return to the Y to teach an evening class, he couldn’t keep hold of his keys.
“They just kept falling out of my hands, then I tried to get them into the car and just couldn’t do it,” he said. “My wife was wondering what the hell was going on.”
Instead of continuing to the YMCA, Looye went to Peace Arch Hospital, where it was determined, he recalled, that he had suffered a stroke.
A day-and-a-half later, he was discharged.
“I felt better. I had feeling in my hands and everything,” he said.
A few nights after that, on Valentine’s Day, Looye was getting ready to leave for another class at the YMCA, when a sharp pain shot up his arm.
“If I’d have had a knife, I’d have cut that muscle right out, that’s how badly it hurt,” he explained.
Back to PAH he went.
“They said, ‘Aart, you’re having a big one this time.’ That’s all I remember. I woke up, and I was at VGH.”
At Vancouver General, Looye underwent a variety of scans and tests, keeping close tabs on the stroke-causing blood clot after it was discovered he was dealing with what doctors told him was “an evolving stroke.”
“If it keeps going, it will kill you. But – long story short – it didn’t,” he said.
Less than a week after he was admitted, his daughter, Robin Latajka, emailed the Peace Arch News to let a reporter know what had happened to her father.
“He’s already talking about you writing a story on his recovery,” she wrote.
After about a month, Looye was deemed stable enough to be discharged from VGH, and he was assigned to Laurel Place, a rehabilitation facility near Surrey Memorial Hospital. He arrived there in a wheelchair, and on his first day, announced that he planned to walk out himself.
For weeks, Looye worked with staff daily as they aimed to improve his mobility, especially on his left side. During recoveries such as his, any progress is measured in baby steps – a muscle twitch here, a movement there. But Looye wanted more.
On March 25 last year, Looye’s wife, Liz, provided an update, via email, on her husband’s progress. At one point, the letter reads, he fell out of his wheelchair – after which nurses (“kind but insistent”) demanded that he rely on them more, and call for help when needed.
Looye, she continued, had been begging to walk since his arrival, and staff finally relented, and put him on the facility’s “walking machine” which allowed him to shuffle down a hallway.
“He talked about it all day,” Liz wrote.
At the same time, Looye insisted that his rehab would be further aided by time in the pool, but staff – rightly worried about his safety – were nervous, he said. But, like with the walking machine, he eventually wore them down, and he was taken to the YMCA.
“I got to the building, got in a wheelchair, went down a ramp, got in the pool and swam away,” he smiled.
Looye’s stubbornness reared its head again during his last week at Laurel Place. Still in his wheelchair, staff informed him that he was to be discharged and sent home.
“When I came in here, what was the first thing I told you?” he asked.
“That you wanted to walk.”
“Well I can’t yet, and I’m not leaving until I do.”
Looye remembers staff saying they’d have to call the police if he refused to leave.
“’Go ahead,’ I told them. Two days later, they had me up, and I walked out of there,” he said.
A short video exists of Looye’s exit (see video below), and shows him leaving the building under his own power – with a walker, and caregivers on either side for support. Staff and fellow patients cheer him on as he goes. He’s wearing a sea captain’s hat – a gift, he says, given to him because people at Laurel Place said he “was leaving his ship.”
It’s a video that’s tough for Looye to watch. A year ago, when showing it to a visitor, his eyes welled up with tears and he turned his head away. More recently, just the mention of the video – or of his wife, children, or his team of swimmers, the Uncoachables – causes him to choke up, temporarily speechless, before quickly regaining his composure.
“The thing this (stroke) has done, it’s really affected my emotions, that part of my brain,” he explained.
“I can’t keep it under control.”
He had a similar moment last month, when, at BC Masters Swimming Championships, he was surprised to be awarded the Ted Simpson Achievement Award – given to the swimmer deemed to be an inspiration after “overcoming injury, illness or disability.”
At the same meet, Looye won three medals, including one gold, swimming with only his right arm. He learned to use the palm of his good hand as a rudder, to keep from going in circles.
• • •
Since his first foray back into the water, Looye has continued to push himself.
If he could swim during rehab, he thought, why not enter a few local meets? After success there – using his one-arm technique – what was to stop him from signing up for BC Seniors Games, or provincial championships?
After each meet, his medal collection grew.
Somewhere along the way, he said, his doctors, physiotherapists and caregivers – not to mention family and friends – stopped questioning his decision to return to the water.
“Eventually, they all just gave up. I guess they just said, ‘That man is an idiot, let him swim,’” he said, while heaping praise on the team of medical professionals who helped him in his recovery.
“Now, they’re very encouraging.”
Looye’s determination is a trait the senior wears as something of a badge of honour, especially when it comes to his athletic endeavours, which range from keeping the now-defunct Crescent Beach Triathlon alive longer than many expected, to earlier comebacks from injuries and illnesses.
“I could be a couch potato now, if I wanted to be. But that’s not me,” he said. “I’ve had rotator-cuff surgery, I’ve had a knee replacement, I’ve had cancer, and now a stroke – what else do you want?”
There have been recent setbacks, however.
Looye still has extremely limited movement in his left arm, but insists he’ll “get it to work, sooner or later,” and he cannot drive, relying heavily on HandyDart service to get around.
As well, a pair of visits to the cardiologist identified two different heart problems. The first were blocked arteries, which required the angioplasty, while a second visit found that Looye suffered from atrial fibrillation – an irregular heartbeat.
A month ago, to solve the latter issue, Looye underwent a heart conversion, in which the heart is stopped, then restarted again, hopefully with a regular beat.
When he asked how a previously healthy individual could suffer from atrial fibrillation, Looye’s cardiologist told him it’s a condition common among aging athletes, as their hearts have often worked overtime compared to the average person.
“All you old athletes are the same – you all get it,” the doctor told Looye. “You train too hard. Don’t you ever give up?”