MARQUETTE - The last time Dave Bach was on a bike, the date was Aug. 13, 2011 and he was approaching the finish line of the Ore to Shore Mountain Bike Epic's Soft Rock race, a 24-mile sprint through the trails of Marquette County.
Jockeying for position, Bach prepared to make a final push. He stood up on the pedals and began pumping his legs when he felt a pop in his chest. Lightheaded and with blurred vision, he stopped pedaling and stumbled from his bike.
"I started seeing a zillion stars and it instantly felt like an elephant was on my chest," Bach said recently. "At the same time, in my mind, I was like, 'This is not good.'"
Ore to Shore participants are seen during a recent race. (Journal file photo)
It felt, he said, like someone was "ripping my chest apart."
Race personnel were on-site almost immediately and Bach, who had suffered an aortic dissection, was at Marquette General Hospital within minutes. Roughly 10 hours later, he emerged from emergency surgery.
An aortic dissection occurs when there is a tear in the inner wall of the aorta, the body's largest artery. Blood flow expands the tear and patients often die within minutes.
After the massive surgery, in which doctors replaced a portion of Bach's aorta with a synthetic material, his family was told that his life had been saved. But MGH staff were unsure if there would be any long-term damage, as his blood pressure had fallen to a dangerously low level during the procedure.
Though his survival makes it obvious, Bach, 46, is quick to point out that he is lucky beyond belief. After spending the better part of two hours deep in the forests of Marquette County, he suffered a life-threatening injury just five blocks from the Upper Peninsula's largest hospital.
Eric Wolf is a paramedic with MGH and was one of the first on scene when Bach needed assistance. Wolf ran tests along the trail and determined his patient wasn't having a heart attack, but he knew he needed to move quickly.
"He just didn't look good. I pick up a lot of people that are sick and call the ambulance and you get a gut feeling that this person is sick or not," Wolf said. "When you looked at him you knew he was sick and I got that gut feeling that we needed to go."
Bach said his dissection involved the "shredding" of the wall of the aorta and Wolf said that's a good thing, in context.
"If his aorta would have burst, actually dissected and ripped open, he would have had maybe a minute and he would have died," said Wolf, who estimates he has only responded to two or three other aortic dissections in 10 years on the job. "And there would have been nothing we could have done, nothing the ER could have done and probably nothing the surgeons could have done to save his life."
Bach, from downstate Royal Oak, is very clear about how grateful he is to be alive but he has always been competitive and considered himself something of an athlete. That's why his physical inability to finish the race was so galling to the man that has ridden in his fair share of bike races.
As medical personnel were attempting to tend to him, Bach asked Wolf if he could finish the race before going to the hospital, but was told it was likely a very bad idea. He then asked if he could bring his timing chip in the ambulance and ride across the finish line on the way to MGH. Upon regaining consciousness following surgery, he was still upset about missing the finish line. Bach said his first word upon waking was 'Gatorade.'
"My next words were, 'a quarter mile from the finish," he said.
This Saturday, hundreds of competitors will ride through the same forests that Bach was lucky enough to make it out of last year. And on the day of the 2012 Ore to Shore Mountain Bike Epic, Bach - 364 days removed from major open heart surgery and one day shy of his 47th birthday - plans to finish the race he started last August.
He has been told by his doctors that he should keep his heart rate below 100 beats per minute. He can no longer bike off road. He shouldn't run. He was advised to avoid hunting, as the excitement could result in a spike in heart rate.
So on Saturday, a cautious Bach will get on his bike in downtown Marquette and he will ride it to the finish line at Marquette's Lakeview Arena.
After completing the longest race of his life, Bach will head to a private room he has reserved in a downtown Marquette restaurant. In a show of gratitude for their assistance one year ago, he has invited the medical personnel - including nurses, doctors, surgeons, paramedics and ambulance drivers - who were involved in his care.
"I wanted to reach out," Bach said. "We were so impressed with the community and Marquette and MGH. I am so thankful that they saved my life and so thankful that all the nurses gave me great care. If we can reach out and thank them face to face, that would be great."
Wolf, who hopes to stop by to see Bach on Saturday, said he has received cards and thank-you cards from past patients, but has rarely been invited to a night out.
"It's nice to be appreciated," he said. "We occasionally will get a card in the mail saying 'Hey you picked me up and I really appreciate what you did,' but this has been just unbelievable."
Kyle Whitney can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250.