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Brandon Sun - PRINT EDITION

Sun Weekend shines on Dennis Zboril

As a member of the Canadian National Amputee Hockey Team, Dennis Zboril, who was born without his right arm, has played internationally, in such locations as Prague, Latvia, Boston, and Finland. His team has won five gold medals, and he's received awards for best defenceman as well as top forward play as a defenceman. But last summer, the now-28-year-old's heart stopped beating while he was with friends aboard his boat on Lake Minnedosa. His life has taken a dramatic turn since that fateful day, and he's gone from player to coach of the hockey team. Known to many as 'Onezy,' due to his missing limb, Zboril is facing an uphill battle as he struggles to cope with a condition that doesn't allow him to indulge in many of the things in which he used to find joy.

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As a member of the Canadian National Amputee Hockey Team, Dennis Zboril, who was born without his right arm, has played internationally, in such locations as Prague, Latvia, Boston, and Finland. His team has won five gold medals, and he's received awards for best defenceman as well as top forward play as a defenceman. But last summer, the now-28-year-old's heart stopped beating while he was with friends aboard his boat on Lake Minnedosa. His life has taken a dramatic turn since that fateful day, and he's gone from player to coach of the hockey team. Known to many as 'Onezy,' due to his missing limb, Zboril is facing an uphill battle as he struggles to cope with a condition that doesn't allow him to indulge in many of the things in which he used to find joy. (COLIN CORNEAU/BRANDON SUN)

So where did you grow up?

I’ve lived in Minnedosa since I was 10. I grew up on a farm — I’ve always been a farmer. I got a job just outside the city working on a farm. And I did that on and off for 10 years or so.

And have you been able to resume that or are you still working?

No. I’m not able to. I can’t work or anything.

So this life-altering event for you happened when?

Just this past summer, Aug. 9. We were just on my boat, and I was just on a tube and I told the people I was with I didn’t feel good, and the next thing I knew I was in the hospital coming out of a coma.

Gee whiz! How long were you in a coma?

Two days.

And what’s wrong with your heart?

The electrical part of my heart kind of beats at whatever beat it wants to beat at. It beats out of control and then it finally just quit.

So your heart just stopped. And you’re in the middle of the lake. So you can’t tell me first hand but you will have heard from other folks exactly what happened.

We were just sitting by the boat on the tube and I fell off the tube into the water. And they had to pull me up. They started CPR right away. When the ambulance got there, they shocked me and finally got a heartbeat after about 20 minutes.

Twenty minutes! I thought a person suffered brain damage long before that length of time!

You should be dead after 10 minutes. They took me to hospital in Minnedosa and then they took me to Brandon and induced a coma for a couple of days just to keep my body cold and let my heart recover.

Had you known that you always had this problem?

Yeah. They got treated as heart attacks but they weren’t heart attacks. It was just the electrical conductivity in my heart was out of whack.

Was what happened last summer the first time that had happened?

No. I’d been hospitalized and treated for this before, since I was about 18 or 19. But this was the first time my heart stopped.

So after you came out of the coma, I presume it was a long road to recovery.

I had the standard angiogram in Winnipeg. I had a couple of those and then they put a defibrillator in me. It’s the same as a pacemaker but it does the exact opposite. With the defibrillator, when your heart’s beating out of control, it shocks it into a regular rhythm.

I have what I’m told is a fairly common condition called Barlow’s Syndrome or mitral valve prolapse, where the valve between my heart's left atrium and the left ventricle doesn't close properly, so the valve can bulge with blood and then the blood can leak back. When that happens, my heart goes nuts — it races and beats irregularly. And every time — EVERY time that happens — I feel like I’m having a heart attack, like I’m about to die. And it’s terrifying during those moments. I’m sure you can feel this device in you when it does its thing. Do you get symptoms? Can you feel your heart doing what it’s not supposed to do? And are you like me? Scared when it happens?

Since I’ve gotten the defibrillator in, I haven’t been shocked. It’s been close a couple of times. But they say that when it does go off, it feels like you’re getting kicked in the chest by a horse.

So you really hope that it’s there for insurance and you don’t need it.

They call it my safety net, which it is. I can’t feel it if my heart beats too fast, but it has an internal memory, and I get readouts from it and send them into Winnipeg.

So THEY know it’s been close a couple of times.

Yup.

Has this limited your activity a lot? You can’t work now. Are you still allowed to play hockey?

Just a limited dose of it. I don’t play the calibre of hockey I used to because I can’t have any physical activity — contact, like.

How do you keep trim, though? You must work out a bit…

No. I don’t have a license to go anywhere. They took my driver’s license. And I was working — hauling oil with a Class One (driver’s license). They took that forever. So I’m basically straight out of high school again, at 28.

Is it depressing?

A lot. There are other factors, too. It’s not fun.

But you took advantage of the Cardiac Rehab Program, right? What did you do there and what could they do for you?

Half of my problem is doing stuff to work out to get my heart going — that’s what I want to do. But I don’t do it because I’m scared of what would happen. So what that heart program does is there’s a doctor and a cardiac nurse right there just in case. So it’s benefited me a lot, because I get peace of mind knowing that if I do overwork it and something does happen, I know that at least there’s somebody there. It’s not like if I go to the gym in Minnedosa, sometimes there’s nobody in there so you’re just by yourself.

So do you go to heart rehab once a week?

I did go once a week. But then I bought a heart-rate monitor. And it’s a hundred bucks, but for me, it’s a hundred bucks well spent, because I can play rec league hockey just for fun and to get some sort of workout. And I wouldn’t be able to if I didn’t have this monitor. It’s just peace of mind to know — I can just look and know what my heart rate’s at and know if I should take it easy.

Would you recommend the Cardiac Rehab Program to other folks?

Yeah. For the peace of mind. It’s just 95 per cent peace and five per cent for the workout.

Do you still go?

Well, I’d like to, but I live in Minnedosa and it’s hard to get to Brandon because I can’t drive. It just puts a restriction on things because if I’ve got to go somewhere, I’ve got to find an alternate way. It’s like I’ve got a DUI, but I don’t.

So how do you get around most of the time?

My girlfriend, Brianna Workman.

And how has she handled all this?

I wouldn’t be alive if it wasn’t for her. She’s the one who did CPR on me on the boat.

So the future for you. What do you see?

Nothin’.

Oh, Dennis!

I don’t. I think about it all the time. I’ve got to get there first. My future seems not too bright. It’s a mental thing. And it’s physical. I’ve had these problems since I was 18. And twice I was hospitalized before this last one. And they’ve just been arrhythmia — they’re not your typical heart attacks. So they didn’t know what was going on. So I just went about life as normal and picked myself off the ground twice before. And now this one. And I don’t want to do it all again, because if it — the defibrillator — goes off, I’m back to square one again.

Are you on some sort of long-term disability pension? What happens in circumstances like these?

It’s a rough go with the government. My doctors have filled out forms saying I’m not ready to work and the government’s telling me that I’m ready to work in their eyes. So I’ll just keep on bugging them until they give in, I guess. I don’t know. It’s frustrating, because you’re trying to live your life and you can’t work and you go to ask your government, and they’re telling you to go to work.

And your doctors are telling you you can’t and your life is hanging in the balance. Wow.

I know I can’t. I know they don’t know what’s wrong with me and I don’t want to do this all again if they don’t know. And it’s frustrating because everybody’s at a standstill because I’m alive, so they think they’re doing the right thing, but I can’t live off pills the rest of my life.

So it’s still not a firm diagnosis, then? Even with the implant?

No. They don’t know. They don’t know. And that’s the most aggravating, frustrating, draining thing about this whole thing is they don’t know what’s going on but they’re not really taking the necessary steps. They’ve got their own thing to do and other people to see, but for me, it’s just I sit there. I don’t work, so I sit at home and think about everything.

And I’m sure thoughts of death cross your mind.

Yeah. It’s a lot. I’ve been asked, ‘Do you think of suicide?’ But I’m so terrified of dying. I don’t want to die. So suicide’s out the door. I won’t do that.

But the future is the worst part. Not knowing. It’s mentally frustrating. It’d be nice to know. And I think not knowing is more hard on me than anything.

Do you have a shortened life expectancy because of this? Or do you just think that’s likely?

I just think it’s likely. Anybody with heart problems — it’s a main part of the body. And when it’s not a hundred per cent …

It’s just hard to have three heart episodes before you’re 30 years old and try to tell everybody you’re not addicted to cocaine or haven’t done it. If somebody hears that somebody my age is having a heart attack, which I’m not, there’s one thing people think all the time.

That you’re doing drugs and you brought this on yourself?

Yeah. But I think too much about what other people think. The first time it happened — that my heart acted up — I got asked about four different times by medical people if I did cocaine or any other drugs. It’s like if they can’t figure it out, they have to pin it on something. And when you’re getting told you’re doing something when you’re not, it’s frustrating — and insulting.

I understand your cardiac nurse, Joey Pattle, has been a great advocate for you.

She’s been more than a heart nurse. She cares. She goes the extra mile for me. I’ve called her about everything — nothing to do with heart — and she’s just right there. It’s good having somebody like that in your back pocket.

Anyone interested in finding out more about the Cardiac Rehabilitation Program at the YMCA can contact cardiac nurses Sandi Atkinson at 204-578-4225 or Joey Pattle at 204-578-4204.

Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition March 15, 2014

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So where did you grow up?

I’ve lived in Minnedosa since I was 10. I grew up on a farm — I’ve always been a farmer. I got a job just outside the city working on a farm. And I did that on and off for 10 years or so.

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So where did you grow up?

I’ve lived in Minnedosa since I was 10. I grew up on a farm — I’ve always been a farmer. I got a job just outside the city working on a farm. And I did that on and off for 10 years or so.

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