A heart for the diamond
At Whistlestop Park in Byron Center, Michigan, Howie Glupker, 76, toes first base.
There’s a momentary lull in the action. It is morning and already humid.
Then the pace quickens.
A bloop single advances Glupker to second. A liner up the shortstop side moves him to third. He rounds it and heads for home, but the catcher is ready.
Glupker crosses home plate a beat before the catcher receives the throw. It is a “a bang-bang play”—a close call.
His target had been a separate home plate just to the right of the regular plate. It makes things just a little safer. All the better to avoid collisions.
At his age, that’s smart. Why test fate?
Glupker already has. A heart attack nearly 12 years ago put him in the Spectrum Health Fred and Lena Meijer Heart Center. An arterial clot had blocked blood to his heart, causing significant damage.
He has rounded quite a few bases since then.
He’s a national champion softball player in his age group and his team competes across the country. This fall they’ll head to an Olympic-style event in Utah, hosted for seniors.
“He is a great example of (how) life can go on after a heart attack,” said Kevin Wolschleger, MD, a Spectrum Health interventional cardiologist.
Life hadn’t always been so certain.
After retiring in 2000 as athletic director of Byron Center Public Schools, where he spent his entire career, Glupker got a job as a delivery driver for the Lighting Corner in Grandville, Michigan.
A few days before Christmas 2006, he got behind the wheel of a small delivery van packed with boxes of lights slated for new homes.
“All of a sudden, I got hit by something—like a hit with a fist in the chest area,” Glupker recalled. “And then it hit me again, hit me again, hit me again. And I said, ‘Oh no, I’m having a heart attack.’”
He pulled to the roadside and called the Lighting Corner, where employees scrambled to call 911.
He remembers telling them, “I’m not waiting for an ambulance to pick me up. I’m driving to the med center.”
From the Spectrum Health West Pavilion Urgent Center, Glupker was transported to the Fred and Lena Meijer Heart Center.
So began the long road back to the softball field.
The longest road
Cardiovascular disease is the No. 1 killer in America, responsible for more than 800,000 deaths each year.
Glupker’s heart attack stemmed from the rupture of cholesterol plaque in a coronary artery, which caused a blood clot. The clot impeded blood traveling to his heart’s left ventricle, the most common attack site and the heart’s main pumping chamber.
Chest pain and shortness of breath are common symptoms.
“A fair amount of muscle was damaged,” Dr. Wolschleger said.
Doctors had to work fast to save the remaining muscle tissue. Glupker underwent an emergency angioplasty in which Dr. Wolschleger inserted a stent into the blocked artery, propping it open to increase blood flow to the heart.
“When we stent the arteries open during a heart attack, time is very important,” the doctor said. “The sooner the artery is opened the less the heart is damaged, the better the patient’s chances are that they will survive this event. So patients should not delay in getting to the emergency room.”
Plaque buildup usually begins years before cardiac disease. Diet and exercise are keys to avoiding trouble, Dr. Wolschleger said.
And, “definitely no smoking,” the doctor added.
Glupker spent 13 days in the hospital. He encountered some complications and his recovery was prolonged due in part to the size of the heart attack, Dr. Wolschleger said.
It took Glupker a long time to truly reclaim his health.
Softball helped get him there.
“I have some amazing equipment inside me,” he said.
Earning a place
Glupker graduated from the now-closed South High School in Grand Rapids, the same school President Gerald Ford attended decades earlier.
Glupker played football and baseball there and later attended Hope College for a year, but left in his sophomore year to attend Grand Rapids Junior College. He played football there for a year and then returned to Western Michigan University, enrolling in an accelerated program that allowed him to graduate within 18 months. Two years later, he obtained his master’s degree in education.
In January 1968 he got a letter in the mail. It bore a greeting: “Welcome to the U.S. Army, Howard Glupker.”
“I got drafted,” Glupker said.
That had been during the Vietnam War, although the Army never sent Glupker farther than Chicago.
He worked with emerging computers at the now-closed Fort Sheridan Army base, about 30 miles north of Chicago. He played baseball for an Army team. Some of the returning GIs were not amused.
“I don’t brag about that at all,” he said of his time in the service.
But he never veered from the baseball diamond. Over the years, the switch from fast-pitch softball to slow-pitch has been about the only significant change.
“I was one of the old diehards of a fast-pitched softball,” Glupker said. “I said I would never play this silly game of slow pitch.”
As time marched on, he settled into the senior teams, generally for ages 50 and older. He also stepped into travel softball. His team, Michigan Merchants, has players from across the state and neighboring Indiana and Ohio. One player flies from Florida for practices and games.
At a recent gathering of his league team, he pointed to one teammate.
“That is the fastest 75-year-old you will ever see,” Glupker said.
There was more than one artificial knee among the lot.
Glupker has a bad knee, but so far he’s been able to hold off on a replacement.
One thing at a time.
Last year, the travel team won gold at the prestigious Senior Softball USA World Masters Championships in Las Vegas in the 75-79 age group.
He’s hoping the Michigan Merchants can earn a place on the podium again at the Huntsman World Senior Games in Utah this fall in the 74-78 age group. Competitors face off in 48 sports, from archery to volleyball. In between there is basketball and mountain biking, track and field and a triathlon.
The event, where the team has won three earlier gold medals, bills itself as the largest annual multi-sport affair in the world for athletes 50 and older.
Just the sort of place where a 76-year-old heart attack survivor can prove his mettle.
“Part of my heart is dead, but it still ticks pretty well,” Glupker said. “And to be able to do what we are doing is wonderful.”