Ligonier man prepared to return to triathlons after heart surgery

| Sunday, Feb. 9, 2014, 10:00 p.m.

Everything is a competition for Jeff Donato.

“I don't go into anything without the idea of winning,” said Donato, 62, of Ligonier. “I don't just want the T-shirt.”

The lifelong athlete's first-place attitude proved invaluable last summer when he endured robotic surgery for mitral valve prolapse.

Now he is preparing for his return to competing in triathlons.

“You would never know I had 7  12 hours of open heart surgery unless I told you,” Donato said.

Donato has always participated in athletics, playing basketball in high school and at Robert Morris University. He became an avid runner during college, later taking it up as a competitive sport.

Around his late 30s, Donato started cycling, which piqued his interest in triathlons. It quickly became one of his favorite ways to keep his heart pumping.

He was completing approximately 10 triathlons a year, often placing first in his age group.

About three years ago, he started noticing subtle declines in his performance.

“It seemed like I had to work harder and harder to do the same things,” he said.

Last spring, the fatigue worsened.

“I thought it was just because I was old,” he said. “I thought I had just finally worn myself out.”

Unbeknownst to him, Donato was suffering from mitral valve prolapse, a heart condition in which the valve separating the upper and lower chambers of the left side of the heart does not close properly, causing leakage and irregular blood flow.

“He was struggling more than he ever had before,” said his wife, Pam Donato, 61. “I kept telling him to just go get a check-up, and I would hound him, because when you're 60 you get a lot of other things checked at a physical.”

That April, Donato was scheduled to compete in the Angels Race triathlon in Lynchburg, Va., but the weekend of the race coincided with his mother's 97th birthday. Donato skipped the race and signed up for a triathlon a month later.

“I did the tri, and it was bad,” he said. “My swim wasn't great. I could tolerate the bike a little better, but the run was absolutely pathetic. The week after that I went to the doctor,” he said.

Donato's mitral valve needed to be repaired, doctors concluded. A cardiologist suggested Donato make an appointment with Dr. Vinay Badhwar, the chief of cardiac surgery at UPMC Presbyterian hospital in Pittsburgh.

Badhwar and his team often conduct robotic mitral valve repair. In the minimally invasive procedure, a surgeon makes a small incision in the rib area and repairs the valve using the patient's existing tissue, a camera and special tools.

When Badhwar examined Donato in mid-July, he concluded Donato was a candidate for the procedure.

“He said, ‘Anybody else that wasn't in the same shape you're in now probably would have had a heart attack a long time ago,' ” Donato said.

Donato went in for surgery on July 31 and recovered beautifully, leaving the hospital three days later.

“He was very motivated,” Badhwar said. “Oftentimes patients that want to get better, get better. Jeff was one of those patients, and he's done wonderfully well.”

Even during rehabilitation, Donato viewed each step as a competition.

“That's just the way I am,” he said. “When they made me walk in the hospital, I went up the first flight of stairs right away, and they didn't want me to. I was like, ‘It's a competition!' I had to be the best patient they ever had.”

Donato has returned gradually to his typical exercise routines, including the spinning classes he teaches at the Ligonier Valley YMCA.

In April, he will return to the triathlon that he missed last year — the Angels Race.

“I wanted to be ready for the Angels Race because I told Dr. Badhwar that he's getting the medal,” Donato said. “And it has to be the first-place medal.”

Donato credits his recovery to his faith, prayer and his will to win.

“I'm just an average person with average ability,” he said. “If I want to win, I just have to outwork everybody, and that's what I do. It's just a habit.”

Nicole Chynoweth is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-850-2862 or

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