DENMARK — As any farmer will tell you, the work must get done.
And don’t try using the old “but I’m having open-heart surgery” excuse.
“We baled hay on a Tuesday, and I had my chest cut open the next day,” John Lyons said. “That’s just how it goes.”
Less than three years since undergoing mitral valve repair and having a pacemaker implanted in his chest, Lyons hasn’t missed a beat as manager of Lyons Family Farm. The 250-head beef cattle operation, owned by his parents, Nic and Deb, is east of Denmark in rural Manitowoc County.
Lyons, 33, is able to perform virtually all farm tasks, and he and his wife, Megan, recently began serving as District 6 representatives for the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation’s Young Farmer and Agriculturist Committee.
But because of the pacemaker, Lyons can’t arc weld and is advised to avoid large transformers and transmitters, as well as electric fences. Still, accidents happen.
“I’ve touched the electric fence a couple times now,” he said with a grin. “But I’m still alive.”
Lyons was born and raised in rural Denmark on what was then the family’s dairy farm. But he never showed signs of a heart murmur as a youth, despite several relatives having the condition.
It wasn’t until 2012 that Lyons’ heart murmur was discovered while he got a tetanus shot. At the time, Lyons and his wife were living in Massachusetts, where Lyons was working as a herd manager, and then assistant cheesemaker, at Robinson Farm, a 30-cow organic dairy farm.
Lyons underwent echocardiograms and transesophageal echocardiograms over the ensuing months. By January 2015 — when the couple was living in Maine and he was working at Misty Brook Organic Farm — Lyons’ cardiologist advised him to do something about the heart murmur “since my heart was getting pretty big.”
“It got to the point where my heart murmur was loud enough that my wife could hear it when she was laying next to me with her head on my chest,” he said.
The couple moved back to the Denmark area four months later after Megan finished graduate school, and Lyons began working again for his father on the family’s beef cattle farm.
In the days and weeks leading up to open-heart surgery on July 29, 2015, Lyons said he researched the procedure and was prepared for the operating room.
“I wasn’t super nervous at all, because it was just something I knew had to happen,” he said. “I figured I’d have surgery and have to rest for a little while but then I’d be out on the farm again. At no point did I think I wouldn’t be able to get back to farming.”
The surgery at Bellin lasted more than 4 hours and required opening up a heart valve and putting a ring around it so the valve closed properly. Doctors also fixed a patent foramen ovale, a hole between the two chambers of the heart.
But instead of returning home two days later as he originally hoped, Lyons experienced a complication called third-degree heart block. He remained in intensive care through the weekend, and on the ensuing Tuesday — one week after he baled hay on the eve of surgery — a pacemaker was implanted in his chest.
Barring a significant change, Lyons will be pacemaker-dependent for the rest of his life. Every seven or eight years, he’ll need a new one. “At least the pacemaker battery lasts longer than the one in my cellphone,” he joked.
A month after returning home, Lyons carefully climbed behind the wheel of a tractor as his first foray back into farming.
“Light driving on the tractor was OK, but even the skid-steer was a little much for my upper chest,” he said. “You can feel as your sternum is trying to heal.”
Another month later, Lyons began lifting objects up to 10 pounds. And one month after that, he felt good enough to handle most farm tasks.
“As soon as he could get out there, he was hopping in the skid-steer and doing chores,” Megan said. “He’ll still climb silos and jump on tractors and do whatever else might make his cardiologist say, ‘What are you doing?!’ but he’s just fine doing it now.”
Said Lyons: “It was so great to get outside and walk around and see the animals and be in the fresh air, compared to being stuck in a building.”
Lyons underwent a routine checkup four months ago and said everything looks good.
“But if I really crank like on a big breaker bar, you can feel there’s still soreness,” he said. “It’s not like it ever entirely went away. The sternum will never be the same. Even today, this morning, I was like, ‘Oh, I can feel that.’
“I’m always aware of my pacemaker being there. I just need to be aware of things and not get kicked in the chest by a cow or something like that, because that pacemaker is keeping me alive. There’s always that concern.”
When he’s away from home, Lyons wears dog tags with his medical history in case something happens.
Lyons encourages people of all ages to “pay attention to your bodies. If you feel like something isn’t right, consider asking somebody about it. ... Things can and do go wrong even when you’re in your 20s. I speak from experience on that.
“But I’m kind of proud I had open-heart surgery and I’m here to talk about it.”