In high school he was Iowa’s Mr. Basketball. At Iowa State they called him “The Mayor,” and in the NBA, he was known as “a three-point threat.” But after doctors found a serious heart defect during a routine insurance physical, he now calls himself lucky. Currently Assistant General Manager with the Minnesota Timberwolves, Fred Hoiberg stays immersed in the game he loves.
IPTV’s Andrea Coyle sat down with Iowa’s most well-known heart patient to talk about the road from recovery to retirement and his current life plan following this life-altering diagnosis.
Hoiberg: The diagnosis of my heart condition is I had an aortic root aneurism, which basically means that the bicuspid valve led to a balloon, the ballooning of my aorta. And had that gone undetected, it would have kept growing until it burst. And the aorta is the largest blood vessel in the body, and once that ruptures, there's nothing you can do. And, you know, again, I feel extremely fortunate and blessed that I found out when I did.
Coyle: What was your immediate reaction to the news that you needed the surgery? Your wife was with you.
Coyle: What happened in that room?
Hoiberg: I was shocked. I was in complete shock when he said that I needed open heart subject. It felt like somebody had sucker punched me. I didn't know what to think, you know. I mean open heart surgery, that's a big thing.
During the surgery, I lost about half of my blood. It's really an invasive procedure where they put you on circulatory rest, which basically they cool your body down to 60 degrees and for 45 minutes, you know, really clinically you're dead. They shut your system down. They turn your system back on with a heart-lung monitor. It's really a scary situation.
I had some setbacks during the surgery. I talked to the surgeon. He's done 150 of these surgeries. One time his patient had developed a heart block which required a Pacemaker. I was the second person that had to have a Pacemaker. I had developed 100-percent heart block. My heart doesn't beat on my own anymore. It's because of my Pacemaker that my heart beats right now, which is amazing to me that I’m able to be as active as I am and also almost make an attempt to come back and play in the NBA.
So everything looking back, I feel very fortunate that I found out about the condition when I did. Had I not found out about it, had I not gone in for that life insurance test, I probably wouldn't have found out until it was too late.
Coyle: Tell me about your recovery and how six weeks, eight weeks, how long, and how difficult that was. I know you have good days, you have bad days.
Hoiberg: The recovery is very difficult from the surgery, especially when you have a Pacemaker that has to be put in to regulate your heart. There's a lot of depression involved. Talking to people that had the same procedure was very helpful to me and to listen to them talk about you're going to go through bouts of depression.
Basically being an active person my whole life, I basically had to sit in front of a TV, read a book, and just not do anything for six weeks.
The day I left the hospital, I got home and was having an awful day. I felt terrible. I thought it was just because I was getting out and my first day out of the hospital. I went up to get some fresh air after being downstairs and I lost consciousness and I passed out on the floor. I cut my chin open. I was unconscious for about two minutes.
I was rushed back to the emergency room, and I developed fluid in the sack, my pericardium that surrounds the sack -- surrounds the heart, so I had to get that extracted. The blood wasn't getting to my head, and that caused me to pass out. I fell on my right shoulder instead of my left, where I had my newly implanted Pacemaker.
Had I taken one more step, I don't know what would have happened, and that's really scary for me to think about that.
About two and a half or three months after the surgery, I took a trip with the team to Las Vegas where they met for a little summer mini camp. And that's when I took my first shot and jogged up and down the court a little bit, and that really helped me in my recovery process that I’m going to be okay with this.
Coyle: What were you thinking at that moment?
Hoiberg: Well, I was a little scared but I saw the guys out there competing and playing, and it got my competitive juices flowing a little bit for the first time.
Really the first time I thought about basketball again after my surgery was when I took that trip with the team. Before that I was just worried about what's this going to do to my longevity, to my life span, to all that. Am I going to be able to see my kids grow?
Because when I looked in the mirror, I didn't see the same person. And it was hard to look in the mirror and see the person that had just a couple months before been playing in the prime of his career. So it was tough but at the same time I was making strides every day and I knew it was only going to get better.
Coyle: So how do you feel now?
Hoiberg: I feel great. I feel almost normal again. The thing I notice is my heart beats extra hard after the surgery. I'm sure I’m much more aware through everything going on in that area.
I see my Pacemaker every morning when I take a shower and I look in the mirror and I see this little casing in between my shoulder and my chest muscles. And it sticks out a couple inches, so every day that reminds me. It makes me realize how lucky and fortunate I was to find out about it.
Coyle: So you had originally planned or hoped to return to the NBA. So at what point did you realize that that was just probably not going to happen?
Hoiberg: I wanted to go out on my own terms. I wanted to give myself every opportunity to make a return to the court where I could play again, and I got myself back in great shape. It was a long process. You know, the first day I couldn't hardly get up the court twice. I was getting to the point where I felt like I could make a return and make an impact on a team.
The closest team I was going to sign with was the Phoenix Suns. Their cardiologist called specialists from all over the country and we came to the conclusion that there was some risk involved.
For me one-percent risk was too much with my family the way it is. Had I been a 22-year-old rookie with no family, I would probably be playing right now. But with my family the way it is, I didn't want them to worry about me and I didn't want to put myself in any kind of risk.
Coyle: Was there ever a moment where you felt, man, I’ve done everything right, why me?
Hoiberg: I never really looked at it that way. The way I looked at it was that I was lucky I found it. I was very lucky to have a ten-year NBA career, very fortunate to do that, to be a late second round draft pick from a small town in Iowa to making it to the ultimate level, to ten years playing against the best athletes in the world on a nightly basis. That's the way I looked at it.
Was it hard? Absolutely. I would have loved to have played for five, six, who knows how much longer. But it was tough. It's still tough to watch the guys out there playing when I know I could be out there on the court helping the team.
Coyle: Is there anything you don't miss about playing?
Hoiberg: No. I miss -- I miss playing every night. When I come down and watch practice every day, I miss being out there with the guys and competing on a daily basis.
I miss the games, you know. And when you come out there and the lights are shining and the popcorn is popping and there's that smell in the air and the crowd is coming in, I miss that. I miss that a lot.
Now I’m sitting up in the stands 20 rows up watching the game that I feel I should still be a part of, but I’m thankful that I’m still in it. I'm thankful I’m still a part of this game that in one respect was taken away from me; in another respect I was given a great opportunity to stay involved.
Coyle: What have you learned?
Hoiberg: What have I learned? I've learned that there's a lot more important things in life than what I thought before. Spending the time with my family really does mean more to me than it ever has.
When something like this comes up, you stare death in the face, and it's really a scary situation. As a professional athlete, you almost think of yourself as being invincible. That's not the case. We're human like everybody else.
I just realize how fortunate and how lucky and how blessed I was.
Mundt: While he no longer plays even pick-up basketball, Hoiberg stays in great shape and serves as a spokesperson for the company whose Pacemaker generates every beat of his heart.