Keesler member owes life to PT lifestyle

  • Published
  • By Susan Griggs
  • 81st Training Wing Public Affairs
Michael Raff said he owes his life to a physical training regimen engrained in him through the Air Force.

The 42-year-old ground radar maintenance instructor in the 338th Training Squadron underwent open heart surgery in late November 2012. Raff credits his fitness habits with his quick recovery and return to the classroom Feb. 13. Feb. 15, he participated in the Healthy Heart 5-kilometer run/walk at the Blake Fitness Center.

"PT is more than just for an enlisted performance report -- it's forĀ  survival," Raff insisted. "Good fitness habits begin when you're young. Even if you're healthy and physically fit, it may not stop heart problems, but it will help in your survival and recovery."

Excellent PT test scores may be highlighted on EPRs, quarterly awards and decorations, as well and may help an Airman advance in their military career. But Raff feels that physical fitness is a must for a long and healthy life, not just during a military career, but after retirement or separation.

Raff retired July 1 as a master sergeant after nearly 24 years of active-duty service. In his last assignment, he served as deputy chief of the installation exercise program office.

"During my entire career, I was in units that made PT mandatory, even before it was mandatory Air Force-wide," he recalled. "Like most young Airmen and noncommissioned officers, I did just the minimum physical training requirement with no thought of my overall health for the future."

As Raff approached his 40th birthday, he said he knew he'd be graded as a 30-year-old on an upcoming PT test, so for several weeks he worked with a coach on cardio and strength training. After passing the test, he continued his heavy physical activity for a few weeks, but injuries and work duties got in the way and he reverted to the bare minimum again.

Early last year, Raff said he began to feel and show his age.

"Over the years I had gained an extra 30 pounds with a body mass index of almost 28 (the normal range for a man is between 23 and 25)," he pointed out. "I had been diagnosed with hypertension and already knew I had a fairly common heart condition called mitral valve prolapse. I also had a family history of early death due to heart problems. The doctors at Keesler Medical Center told me that I needed to lose weight and keep up with my physical activity so I could enjoy my retirement years."

Raff resolved to change his ways and began eating a well-balanced diet of fruits, vegetables, proteins and grains, using a calorie counter app to track his food consumption. His physical fitness routine kept him active six days a week -- three days running 3 to 4 miles and the other three days doing a combination of cardio and strength training. His weight dropped and his BMI decreased to 22. He scored a 94.9 on his final PT test in June and continued a healthy diet and exercise program like his doctors recommended.

During physicals and cardiology testing before his retirement, Raff learned he would probably need heart valve surgery within five years.

However, by mid-September, his energy level had decreased and he began having chest pain, heart palpitations and anxiety issues. Extensive tests revealed a severely prolapsed mitral valve and confirmed the need for surgery. His doctors allowed him to go home to await surgery, rather than be hospitalized, because of his overall good physical condition.

"During November, my energy level and ability to do things greatly diminished," said Raff, who is a single dad to his 16-year-old daughter, Ariel. "Walking 100 yards was a tiring event and simple things like housework or cooking became great challenges."

For Raff, surgery was one of the lowest points in his life, but his surgeons assured him that his chance for a quick recovery was enhanced because he was active and had achieved an ideal weight.

"After feeling so bad for a few months, I had my doubts, but I wanted to get back in shape and enjoy life once again," he remarked.

The first few days after his Nov. 29 surgery were very rough. Raff was in a lot of pain and any type of activity, even sitting up in a chair, was a challenge. Thirty hours after surgery, he passed out after walking only 20 feet.

But five days post-surgery, he was sent home with a rehabilitation schedule for six weeks of daily walks that gradually increased in distance.

"Each day I felt stronger and more like my normal self," Raff stated.

After six weeks, he began cardiac rehab where he was supervised on cardio machines for one-hour sessions three times a week. He began a training program called "Couch to 5-K" to prepare him to return to normal activity.

His running coach, Lisa McCombs, said the program involves a progressive running schedule where the participants complete progressive running and walking intervals and run a 5-K at the end of eight weeks.

"He's very inspiring for everyone else in the group because you have people coming from the couch just because they're lazy." McCombs said. "If he can do it coming from heart surgery, they can do it."

"Many people say they don't have time for PT because they're too busy or just don't enjoy running -- I was the same way," Raff admitted. "I discovered that running was good stress relief. Sometimes I'd listen to music, sometimes I would just think about the day and decompress from the stress. When things got busy and workout time wasn't in the schedule, I'd add a few extra minutes to my time walking our dog to keep my activity level up.

"I'm proud to say that all those PT sessions in the Air Force paid off in more ways than one," he added. "I'm able to enjoy life again and I feel a lot better each and every day."