Monday, October 31, 2011

Just Keep Pushing: Strong Heart, Determination required for Nimitz Sailor to apply to Navy Diver program

By  Electrician's Mate 3rd Class Johnathan Villalobos, USS NIMITZ (CVN 68)

Being here in Bremerton has taught me a lot about why I am in the Navy. My father served, my grandfather served, but I also wanted to do something for my family. I would later find out that there was something more to this than I realized. 

I’m a non-nuclear Electrician’s Mate; we’re in the Engineering Department.  What’s happening now with the EM rate is that we basically only have the option to change rates, since they are phasing out our rate. Some people don’t want to convert, so they’ll just get out, but that isn’t an option for me.

I’m from San Diego, so I’ve been in the water my whole life. Doing underwater rigging or even a rescue that can return a loved-one to a family is something I want to do; Navy Diving is what I have to pursue. I loved the idea that you’re working with such a tight knit group of people. So I asked myself, “What can I do to get this done while Nimitz is in DPIA?” I can swim in the morning, swim in the afternoon, and go to the naval hospitals to work on getting my Navy Diving package together.

The process seemed simple enough, until I was suddenly placed on a medical hold. The reality of it was, I took a basic EKG and what the doctors ended up finding was life threatening – an abnormal, undefined block in my heart.  No one knew exactly was.

I was sent to Bremerton Hospital, where I got an echocardiogram, which is basically a sonogram of the heart. By now, I’m nervous, I had no idea what to expect. I asked a medical officer what the severity of the situation was and he told me, “Honestly, were looking at heart disease. We’re looking to see if you’re a risk in the military. Don’t just be concerned about this medical hold.” He explained that I could be medically discharged out of the Navy for heart disease or I could find out that I could stay in the military, but may not be able to convert to Navy diver.

I thought, Wow! This is crazy! I’m just in panic mode.

I was told to make an appointment. I knew how important this appointment would be and I wanted to get it as soon as possible, so I personally called and scheduled it myself. Luckily, someone cancelled their appointment scheduled for two days from the date I called. I told them whatever time it was, I would get off work. This wasn’t just my career, this is my life.

I finally got to my appointment and the people who monitored the test were captains, commanders and civilians. As they looked at my heart, I was just asking tons of questions, “ What are you looking at? What are you looking for?”

The doctors were looking at the thickness of the heart. Is it normal? Is it healthy? They did infrared, and looked at the valves and blood flow. Everything was going great, it looked perfectly healthy. The doctors said it looked normal. I had just five minutes left in the interview. I was so close to being cleared medically.

As doctor began checking the valves, he just started zooming in, zooming out, going back in. He left the room and came back with another doctor. He found two valves, they’re like doors; open all the way, close all the way. It’s like a natural electrical pace-maker in your heart that tells you move that switch or open that valve. My valves, in particular, is that they don’t really open or close all the way. The middle rises kind of like bending your knee first then kicking your foot out. It has a delay that basically impeded the flow of oxygen to my heart, muscles and brain.

Since the doctors were observing the action at rest, they wanted to see how my heart handled added stress. They wanted to get my heart rate up to around 200 beats per minute on a treadmill test.

I just kept thinking to myself, “I’m freaking out here. This is crazy!

Two days before, I was google-ing possible disease on heart failure, how to survive and live with these things, medication that I’d have to be on for the rest of my life if it was a disease and the side effects of those medications.

I had all these questions, but the doctors weren’t permitted to tell me anything until after all of the evaluations were completed.  I felt left in the dark. I was just panicking. But I’m trying to relax because I’m about to go on a treadmill. I have a family, a wife and two daughters, there’s a lot more years left in my life to see my kids get married. I didn’t want to tell my wife anything until I knew for sure what was going to happen.

When I got on the treadmill, my heart rate and blood pressure were still really high. I was trying to relax, but with so much going on it was difficult. The doctor told me I was about to work my body as hard as I could and that the point of the test was to get me to the point that I was going to want to stop. He told me I would be running with an EKG. Think of those Gatorade commercials with the professional athletes running on treadmills. That was what I had to do. It would start at 7mph and it would continually increase speed and incline. At one point it would be at a 45 degree angle and I would be sprinting.

I wore an armband where my blood pressure could constantly be monitored a mask that would collect sweat and read my pulse and nasal breathing.

Breathe, Relax, breathe, relax. Calm down.

This was becoming intense, but I realized this was the only thing I could physically control. None of the other stuff I could control, I mean, I was born with a condition – I can’t control that. But this one thing I can. It’s my mind over this matter. This is my obstacle course. I have to be mentally strong to be as relaxed as possible before he tells me to get off.

I get on the treadmill and it basically started off in between a run and a fast walk. Then it really started going, and going, and going, and every time he checked my blood pressure I repeated to myself, “Be relaxed, be relaxed. Just ten minutes into it, and I’m sweating hard.

The doctor told me only 10 people have ever beaten this machine, and it had been years since he had seen someone beat it. I’m about half-way through and it felt like I had just run two PFAs. I’m done in my mind. But then I realized this is really all just in my mind.  Just keep pushing.

The doctor told me he was really going to push me and that I would probably stop soon. I’ve already done 20 minutes. I’ve already done 30 minutes. I’m almost done. With just four minutes left, I wasn’t going to give up unless my knees buckled and I fell off the treadmill. Four minutes – that’s all I needed.

The doctors started smiling, and motivating me to finish. My heart itself was so relaxed; it was so cool to see. Before I knew it, the test was over. I was immediately told to lay on a bed so the doctor could see how well my heart could relax on its own. I thought my heart was going to jump out of my chest, but it started jumping to relaxation really fast.

The doctor congratulated me and was in shock. The nurses said they had never seen one completed in their entire career. People came and talked to me and were so amazed that I beat the machine.
All I was thinking was, “I don’t care, this is my life. I want to know that I’m healthy.”

The doctor explained that I have conditioned my heart to handle such stress, and that I was lucky to have a heart that has grown in strength. But it wasn’t over yet, he still needed to look at the results of all the tests.

The nurses explained that I would be presented with an award. I would now be a part of the Mercy Club, which is awarded to people who reach physical achievements. A nurse told me they were going to make a list of all the people who beat the machine and hang it on the wall in front of it, so everyone will be able to look at our names, see what we beat it, and find the motivation to push on. If EM3 can do it, I can do it it’s a great feeling to be recognized and it was definitely a life achievement for me.

I still didn’t know if I was going to be discharged from the Navy, and have to take medication for the rest of my life. I wanted to be able to go home and tell my wife that everything was going to be ok. I needed my children to feel like their lives were still propelling in the right direction. I wanted as many answers as I could get from the doctor.

The Nimitz is moving out of DPIA, the package needed to get out now. There’s a lot of preparation I still need to do if I’m cleared to move forward. I was going to call as much as I could until I got the answer. My chief told me that he would support me with anything I needed to do.

Four days later, I got my results. I was cleared. I was finally relieved. I had my award ceremony later that week, where I spoke with the doctor in further detail. He told me that only a small percentage of people in the world have this condition give the heart the endurance to withstand this stress. He told me I was going be just fine. I was smiling from ear to ear I was so excited to receive the award and move forward on finishing my package to be a diver.

I know that when I go to Navy dive school, I’m going to be the most mentally prepared. Once it feels like I’ve hit rock bottom, I’m just going to remember all of these things I had to go through. I’ve been through these situations that most people couldn’t handle – I did. It’s my mind over this situation.

I got NAUI (National Association of Underwater Instructors) certified which is a SCUBA certification. I wanted to show that I really wanted to be a diver and I was doing everything I could to make it happen.
After meeting with the Navy Diver Medical Officer, I got the last signature I needed to submit my diver package.  I’m still working out and doing everything I can do to prepare as much as I can.

This is a more than a career path for me; it’s a life path. I honestly think my children are going to be proud of me. I know that I am going to retire as a Navy Diver.


  1. Amazing story, way to go Jonathan!

  2. Thank you Jonathan for being you....breath, breath, relax..can apply to much of life. We are all so proud of you! Way to go! & may the Lord continue to bless and watch over you! :)