Life isn't what this heart survivor thought it would be—it's much better.
If I'd been born 20 years earlier, I wouldn't be around today," says 27-year-old Ryan Judkins without a trace of sensationalism in his voice.
What's just as amazing about this Merrill Lynch financial advisor is his outlook on life. He explains it this way: "The attitude we take when we face challenges is what's important. Then what we do with this changed attitude is where we can make a difference."
Judkins was a junior-high school jock when he was diagnosed with a defective aortic valve
. No more sports, the doctors told him. It couldn't have been worse news for the boy who had a sport for every season and loved competition. "Sports meant everything to me," explains Judkins. "It was the way I socialized and excelled."Golf is for wimps
Golf, he thought, was for wimps. But because the eighth grader had a couple of buddies who played, he asked his doctors if he could too. "They considered it a non-strenuous activity and said, 'yes,'" remembers Judkins. The sport became his new passion.
Judkins played four years on his high school team, started a golfing business in college building synthetic turf putting greens, and then passed the PGA Playing Ability Test to become a golf professional.
Judkins also worked as an assistant golf pro while attending Brigham Young University. There he met his future wife, who was on the school's cheerleading squad. "I saw her in the hall and sped up to talk to her," he says laughing. "It was my freshman year."
In 1994, the business major put aside his books and his golf clubs to do missionary work in Tokyo for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. During his two-year mission, Judkins didn't pick up a golf club. "I never even thought about it," recalls Judkins. The transcontinental relocation didn't faze him either. "My father was in the Navy," he explains. "I was used to moving.
"I've seen days I wouldn't have otherwise seen"
Judkins has an attitude about life that many other heart and stroke survivors also possess. Is it their brush with death? Perhaps. As Judkins says, "It redirects your life. I've seen days I wouldn't have otherwise seen."
The young survivors, like Judkins, seem wise beyond their years. They inspire with their humility, wide-eyed wonder of the world and unwavering confidence about what's important in life.
"I went from 'Why me?' to 'Thank goodness, it's me!'" says Judkins about his heart condition. It's his congenital heart defect
, he explains, that has enabled him to develop emotionally and spiritually in ways that might not have otherwise been possible.
It also might explain his reaction to the news that it was time for his open-heart surgery
. "You know that excitement you feel about Christmas? It was like that. I couldn't wait to get started. I ran upstairs to pack my bag." It was 1997 and Judkins was 22 years old.
And lest you think that Judkins' positive attitude be caused by limited awareness… Judkins says his heart condition has been a "big thing" in his life—from the moment he learned there would be no more baseball, basketball, soccer or track.
"I went through life knowing that I'd have to have surgery," he says. "And I suspect that there will be another. There hasn't been a moment that my heart defect hasn't been somewhere on my mind."
The valve would've eventually ruptured
Judkins was born with a bicuspid aortic valve instead of a tricuspid aortic valve, a condition that places extra stress on the heart, causing it to enlarge. The overworked valve eventually ruptures.
The surgery to correct this congenital heart condition is known as the Ross procedure
. Donald B. Doty, M.D., a leading pioneer of the procedure, led the seven-hour affair at LDS Hospital in Salt Lake City. He removed Judkins' defective aorta and replaced it with his pulmonary valve. Where Judkins' pulmonary valve used to be, Dr. Doty put in a cadaver's pulmonary valve.
"They don't tell you much," says Judkins about the donor. "I do know he was about 18 years old and died in a car accident." When Dr. Doty and his team restarted Judkins' heart it began racing so fast they had to stop his heart and restart it again. "They're the center of my life"
Five years later, Judkins and his cheerleading heartthrob, Charity, are the proud parents of two children—a 3-year-old son named McKay, and Mary, age 1. About his family, he says, "They're the center of my life."
Although he's still a "diehard" golfer, Judkins says that what he enjoys most in life is "spending time with my wife and kids." "Playing in the backyard, reading and cuddling, letting them know they're loved"-that's what matters most, he says.
Judkins, who works out of Merrill Lynch's Indian Wells office in Southern California, also enjoys his job. "It's not the easiest time right now," he admits, "but I feel blessed to work for a firm where every day I get to focus on others and help them. Life is good and every day I expect it to get better."Attitude Adjustment
"This quote is a favorite of mine," says Ryan Judkins. "It was introduced to me by my manager at Merrill Lynch."
"The longer I live, the more important I realize the impact of attitude on life. Attitude, to me, is more important than facts. It is more important than the past, than education, than money, than circumstances, than failures, than successes, than what other people say or do. It is more important than appearance, giftedness or skill. It will make or break a company…a church…a home. The remarkable thing is we have a choice every day regarding the attitude we will embrace for the day. We cannot change our past…we cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude…I am convinced that life is 10 percent what happens to me and 90 percent how I react to it. We are in charge of our attitudes." -- Charles R. Swindoll