How Skydiving Changed My Life
By Paulo Marinho Gesta de Melo
I was born with a heart condition. I’ve always known that I would have to get surgery to replace a heart valve, but the prognosis was that this would not be necessary until I was around 60 years old. So I’ve had a normal life. I’ve always been active, doing triathlons, cycling, working out, and in 2001, I started skydiving. In 2006, I decided to take skydiving seriously and traveled to boogies, camps and freefly and swoop championships. I became an AFF and BBF instructor (basic body flight, essentially the coach equivalent in Brazil’s student progression) and started traveling every month to train in the U.S.
It was during one of those trips to Sebastian, Florida, while looking for my cutaway JFX in the woods, that I had my first tachyarrhythmia (an abnormally rapid heartbeat accompanied by an irregular rhythm). I went back to Brazil, had some tests, and the doctor said I’d have to have an operation in five months, but until then I could continue skydiving and exercising normally.
The next month, I went to Arizona to participate in a tunnel camp. When it ended, I went sightseeing in Las Vegas, and during a dinner, I had another tachyarrhythmia. I went to the Sunrise Hospital on January 29, 2014, and stayed in the intensive care unit for 12 days. When they finally stabilized my heartbeat, they told me that I’d have to go into surgery as quickly as possible. From there, I went straight back to Rio de Janeiro. The surgery was supposed to be simple. They’d replace one valve, I’d stay in the hospital for five days, and after three months of cardiac rehabilitation and another eight months of recuperation, I’d be able to skydive again. However, there were complications.
I got the surgery on February 20. It lasted seven hours and was a success, but days later I had issues with the provisional pacemaker. I didn’t want a permanent pacemaker, because it would limit my ability to skydive. However, weeks later, I had endocarditis and a second surgery that lasted 10 hours in which they gave me a permanent pacemaker placed strategically below the ribs so that it wouldn’t suffer any pressure from hard openings. On April 14, I went into surgery for a third time, but only for draining.
The hospital released me on May 16. My five-day stay had stretched to more than three months. I spent 74 of those days in the ICU, where I had a stroke, three thrombosis, six cardiac arrests, endocarditis and various other complications. During all those days in the hospital, I planned my return to skydiving, planned my calendar to participate in camps, designed new canopies, new containers, new jumpsuits and changed the color of my helmet. I planned and planned and planned. I dreamed and dreamed and dreamed. That’s what kept me going strong and focused.
When I started rehab outside of the hospital, my recovery astounded the people in charge. Worried that I was overdoing it, they slowed down my exercises and limited a few things, which disappointed me. One day, one of them told me, “I don’t want to hear you talking about skydiving in November and participating in a camp or any of that. I don’t want you building up false hope. It may be that you start skydiving again in a year or that you never do it again.”
After hearing that, I went home sad and unmotivated. My wife, who has always been by my side, searched on Google for the world’s best cardiac rehabilitation centers for athletes. The search yielded a few, one of them being the Baylor Hospital in Dallas. She sent them an email telling them my story, and Jenny and Tim replied, interested in my case. We went to Dallas for three months to participate in the return-to-work program, where police, firefighters and athletes recuperate from cardiac surgeries to live the lives they previously had.
That’s what happened to me. The program was exhausting. Training from 7 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. was so demanding that I spent the rest of the day recuperating, but the results were excellent. I was the first skydiver to participate in the program. My case served as a study, and in exchange, I didn’t have to pay for the three months I stayed there.
On November 7, 2014, I made my first jump back, like I dreamed when I was at the hospital. From November 2014 to July 2015, I made more than 500 jumps. I’m still in rehab because my heart doesn’t work 100 percent; I’ve had a few systoles that I’ve tried controlling with medication, physical activity and skydiving. Yes, skydiving! Because that is what I most love in life. It’s what makes me feel well; it’s what makes my heart well; and it’s what makes me happy.
Paulo Marinho Gesta de Melo | D-32697
Manaus, Amazonas, Brazil