Wayne Ver Strate is in a heated tennis tournament with some doctor friends of his.

They’ve been pounding the court for almost two hours.

“I’m rushing the net trying to get a shot back and down I went,” the now-77-year-old Ver Strate recalled. “I passed out. Hit the deck. Broke my glasses. Next thing I know there’s the fire department guy and they had the machine on me.”

Ver Strate survived the cardiac arrest, but it was such a surreal scene for the retired Wyoming Park physical education teacher that his mind and heart didn’t want to believe what had just happened.

“I said, ‘Let’s go, let’s finish this point,’” Ver Strate said. “The guy looked at me and said, ‘Wow, are you crazy? We’re taking you to the hospital.’”

Before this surgery I couldn’t walk for two blocks. Now I can run like I did in the old days.

Wayne Ver Strate
Heart attack survivor and avid pickleball player

He resumed tennis after a pacemaker installation.

“My buddies said, ‘OK, Ver Strate, we’ll give you one more shot,’” he recalled. “But three months later, down I went. They said, ‘Hey, we don’t want you to die on the court so you’re done playing tennis.’”

For the next three years, Ver Strate sat around. Sedimentary almost. Depressed for sure.

It wasn’t the first time Ver Strate had experienced trouble. At age 54, more than two decades ago, he had open heart surgery to clear a 98 percent blockage. All seemed well until the passing-out episodes illuminated another problem.

Ver Strate still suffered from heart issues and plaque buildup in his legs, also at an estimated 98 percent blockage.

While wintering in Florida two years ago, his foot ached to the point that he could barely walk.

He had trouble playing his newfound sport, pickleball, a paddle, ball and net game played on a court half the size of a tennis court.

“I went to three or four different doctors down there,” Ver Strate said. “At first, they thought it was an infection.”

When he returned to Michigan, Spectrum Health Medical Group vascular surgeon Jason Slaikeu, MD, determined Ver Strate had no blood flow to his feet and suffered from peripheral artery disease, a buildup of plaque within the blood vessels that can make it difficult to walk without pain or cramping.

“While we can usually treat this condition with stents, his condition was severe enough to require a surgical operation with several small incisions to bypass the blocked vessel in his leg and improve the blood flow,” Dr. Slaikeu said.

Ver Strate made his determination to return to pickleball clear.

“What touched me was the level of gratitude and happiness that Mr. Ver Strate has expressed to our team ever since his surgery, even to the level of tears,” Dr. Slaikeu said. “I now share in the joy of seeing him play pickleball and do the activities that are important to his overall wellness.”

Ver Strate said the surgery changed his life.

“I couldn’t walk two blocks without it hurting and I certainly couldn’t play pickleball,” Ver Strate said.

But then Dr. Slaikeu performed the six-hour surgery that essentially installed an artificial artery down Ver Strate’s leg. The pain was intense after the May 2014 procedure, the man recalled, but the reward, more so.

“Oh boy, I’ll tell you, it really hurt,” Ver Strate said. “But like I tell the doc, if it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be moving today.”

And moving he is. He plays pickleball several days a week at MVP in Cascade, Michigan. He’s captured several medals in his age group.

On a recent Wednesday morning while playing doubles, Ver Strate backpedaled, lunged high, fielded the yellow whiffle-ball with an overhand stroke and slammed the ball near the sideline on the opposite side of the net.

“Gotcha, Ronny, gotcha,” Ver Strate teased his opponent.

He then stepped to the back court and, with a fluid sidearm swing, tapped the ball over the net.

He raced toward the net to field the return and popped it toward the line on the opposite court.

By the time the game concluded, and the players tapped paddles in congratulations, Ver Strate and his buddies dripped with sweat.

They stopped for a break.

“This is a great game,” Ver Strate said, sitting on the side-court bleachers. “You get plenty of exercise, but what I like about it is you can take a break. Before this surgery I couldn’t walk for two blocks. Now I can run like I did in the old days.”

Ver Strate takes his sweaty hand and runs it down his right leg, demonstrating how Dr. Slaikeu inserted the artificial vein to carry blood to his foot.

“That sucker runs all the way down here,” he said. “Man, this is great that I can get up, run and play pickleball again. I play about three times a week. It’s quick, it’s fast, it’s a lot of eye-hand coordination. I don’t feel pain anymore. I’m just fired up.”

Ver Strate, who turned 77 on Dec. 22, said he feels more like 50 after the surgery.

“I’m just raring to go,” he said. “I’ve got more energy now. It’s like anybody. If you sit around and mope, you don’t feel like doing anything. If you get a new program going, you get fired up. You get that positive attitude. Everyday I’m ready to go now.”

Besides changing his physical life, the surgery changed his outlook.

“I feel grateful that I’m out there playing,” Ver Strate said. “Otherwise, I’d be sitting on the sidelines and when you’ve been active your whole life, that’s pretty tough. I’m thankful. I’m really thankful.”