Health Hero Spotlight
This Health Hero Spotlight features Justin Park, a professional tri-athlete whose sports career was delayed – but not ended - when he was diagnosed in high school with a severe heart condition.
His condition, called Long QT Syndrome, is generally considered to have a serious risk of death among children and young adults. When the diagnosis was made, Justin had signed a letter of declaration to play soccer with Penn State. He changed paths from sports to law, but he never fully gave up on his dream. In 2009, he returned to the world of elite endurance sports.
Today, nearly 33, Justin is a full-time professional tri-athlete with a part-time legal career. Justin uses Extend Nutrition as part of a triathlon diet, but his personal story is the real inspiration in this Health Hero Spotlight.
Q. What was it like being a senior in high school and learning that you had a serious heart condition that would interfere with your plans for a sports career?
A. Most of my life was geared around athletics so it was not easy to discover I had these health issues. It’s a period of your life when you should feel invincible, just enjoying yourself. It’s a weird situation when you’re taught in life to fight through the hard times because it is difficult to reconcile that concept when what you’re dealing with is a life-threatening situation.
But what it’s done for me now has helped me to grow as a person. It gave me sense of perspective: Don’t let the highs be too high, or lows too low…it could always be worse.
Q. Can you tell us more about your condition? What is Long QT Syndrome?
A. Long QT Syndrome is a genetic condition that occurs when one part of the heart beat is longer than it should me. It causes delayed repolarization of the heart, which is a necessary process in order for the heart to beat again. At high levels of heart rate, this inability to repolarize can cause major problems, including fainting spells, or in some cases, death.
So what is Long QT Syndrome? It is easier to explain this way: the heart basically has trouble resetting itself for another beat. When you’re sitting around with a low pulse rate, then the delay with a low pulse rate isn’t significant and doesn’t generally cause a problem. But something that causes a spike in the heart beat is to be avoided. For example, young kids aren’t supposed to sleep with alarms or you’re not supposed to scare them. Exercise, obviously, can make the condition much more problematic. Those individuals who have the condition and are unfortunate enough to die as a result often do so at a young age. There are not many instances of death pass the age of 25; however, there is question as to whether that is due to a mutation of the condition or the fact that people then restrict themselves from activities that exacerbate the problem.
Q. A lot of people would have accepted that their career as an athlete was over after your diagnosis. What motivated you to continue?
A. There was a period of time in between when, for better or worse, I did give up. I was lucky enough in high school that I managed to get pretty decent grades even though I didn’t really emphasize academics because my focus was on sports. Once the prospect of playing collegiate sports was taken away, I gave up on pursuing elite level sports, put my head into the books both as an undergrad at Duke University and in law school at UCLA.
I never had any real intention of returning to sports. At the end of the 3rd year of law school, I fell into a bet with a fellow law student as to who would be the fastest in a triathlon. I had to go to the doctor to be cleared, to actually participate in the bet. I participated for fun and kept it as a hobby initially.
Q. Your strong athletic performance has developed into a full-time career. What advice do you have for others who feel challenged by their own health conditions?
A. I encourage people to not be afraid to get second opinions from the experts in the area specifically related to their medical condition. Everyone’s different on how they mentally internalize and physically react to their disorder. Don’t be afraid to get a second opinion and search for the experts in that particular disorder. You need to find the ones with expertise in that area to find out what you can and cannot do. Having a second view on the problem is worth its weight in gold.
My pursuit largely started with a small bet, but it became a mere thought that fueled further research and further pursuit of it. I had a doctor who was open and honest with me about it. Now that I am pursuing elite sports again, I keep track of myself and work closely with doctors to monitor myself. It is always going to be a large assumption of risk on my part, but it is a risk I am willing to take to pursue my endurance
Q. How important do you think diet is in your life? Do you follow a triathlon diet?
A. Diet is incredibly important for tri-athlete. Certainly are many times when you’re just throwing calories into your body in order to account for the energy expenditure of hard training, but I do try to eat fruits, veggies, whole grains and lean proteins as the foundation of my diet.
Just because you look like an athlete doesn’t mean you’re eating what you should for maximum performance: Garbage in, garbage out.
Even if you are happy with your progress, it can always be improved heavily by diet. Consistency in training is also important. It is the day-to-day workouts that ultimately drive performance, not one particular hard session. If you get a significant blood sugar drop one day it can set you back for multiple days and have a large impact on your success.
Q. We understand you use Extend Nutrition snacks (that your favorite is the Peanut Butter Chocolate Delight bar). How do you use them?
A. I started using them first for training. The Extend products serve as a crutch for any nutritional mistakes or deficiencies that you might make during the day with your diet. I use one before training sessions (as it relates to my triathlon diet). Science is showing how important blood sugar regulation is. Having a product that’s proven to control blood sugar can help when you’re struggling with your dietary needs due to lack of time or poor nutritional selection. I’ll have one just before a session, to make up for any errors I made, or I’ll use it just for extra equilibrium during a workout.
Blood sugar regulation is very important. Lots of products for athletes are sugar-based since sugar is the predominant source to power muscles during high-intensity endurance workouts. Difficulty comes in when you’re not properly timing everything because those products cause sugar highs and drops which seriously impact the subsequent days to follow (or worse, during a race and spoil your objectives altogether).
I was using them for training, but my wife has actually started to occasionally "steal" an Extend bar from my stash whenever she is getting ready to perform a very long surgical case. She happens to be a vascular surgeon who specializes in aortic aneurysms, and those surgical cases can sometimes last for 10 hours at a time. Because the Extend products are designed in regards to blood sugar control, she tested one out in the hopes that it would help control any hunger during cases. She can't really eat unless she's willing to scrub out and back in... a huge pain, and she found it to be incredibly helpful. In addition, because it keeps her blood sugar under control, she feels she's able to concentrate better throughout the procedure. She has started to begin her long surgical days with Extend bars and she’s very pleased with the outcome.
Q. What kind of plans do you have for your future? Will it continue to involve sports?
A. I think sports will always be a part of my life. The drive of winning gets me out of bed in the morning. I’ll be heading out to a camp to be evaluated by a prominent coach for the possibility to pursue the Olympic Games in Rio in the 2016 Olympic Triathlon.
I also regularly give talks and presentations about the body’s endocrine response to various stresses, whether it is physical, nutritional or various other stresses. Lots of people are told what they should do to improve overall health, but for many people understanding the “why” helps them truly change their habits. I’m trying to help people understand the “why” of good health, and I can envision that being a big part of my future.