Tar Heel of the Week

Heart attack survivor becomes zealous advocate of exercise

CorrespondentOctober 6, 2012 

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Colon Terrell of Cary walked across the country and raised $23,000 for The American Heart Association. Terrell, a heart attack survivor, has had five bypass surgeries.

TAKAAKI IWABU — tiwabu@newsobserver.com

  • Colon A. Terrell Jr. Born: Burlington, March 24, 1948 Residence: Cary Career: Retired banker and advocate for the American Heart Association Education: Bachelor of Arts in Political Science, N.C. State University; graduate degree in banking, Stonier Graduate School of Banking, Rutgers University Family: Wife, Brenda; sons, Matt and Jeff; four granddaughters Fun fact: Among the money Terrell collected for the American Heart Association was $23.79 in loose change that he picked up on the ground during the walk. Most of it was found on bridges, where people tried to throw change into the water, or at intersections, where it often accompanied garbage. “It was really, really dirty,” he says.

— There’s a certain irony that Colon Terrell narrowly missed being cast on the reality TV show “Survivor.”

Little did he know that a decade later, he would make the cut in a real-life battle for survival, barely escaping with his life after a heart attack at age 60 that required quintuple bypass surgery.

But Terrell, a longtime runner, took these challenges in stride. In fact, the 64-year-old Raleigh native decided to celebrate his life, and his recent retirement, with a new challenge. This year, Terrell walked across the country in six months, logging 3,275 miles on foot across 11 states from Manteo to Los Angeles.

He raised more than $20,000 for the American Heart Association before returning from the trip last week, and he’ll be a featured guest at the organization’s Triangle Heart Walk on Sunday.

But he says he is prouder of reaching out to so many people along the way, using his own legs and heart to point others to the life-extending benefits of exercise.

“The thing was to get the message out,” he says, “to show that you can have a heart attack and continue to live, and that exercise will help you do that.”

Terrell conceived the idea for the walk on his own, and pitched it to an American Heart Association representative who happened to approach him about participating in last year’s Triangle Heart Walk.

“He is an amazing ambassador for heart attack survivors, and he has inspired people in North Carolina and across the country,” says Sloan Garner, a Raleigh-based regional vice president for the American Heart Association. “Everybody in America should know what their risk factors are and what they can do to combat it, and he is helping spread that message.”

Stress from banking

Exercise has always been a part of Terrell’s life. He ran track and played on Millbrook High School’s football team, where he was an all-East running back. He went on to attend N.C. State University after he was turned down by the U.S. Naval Academy for failing an eye test.

There, he gave up sports in favor of working to raise his young family. But he continued to run, and has participated in dozens of 10-kilometer runs and one marathon. His father and grandmother died of heart attacks, so he runs both for fun and to combat his genetic predisposition to heart problems.

His fitness level helped him as a potential member of the “Survivor” cast when, at his son’s urging, he sent in a video before the second season. Terrell says he was one of more than 50,000 people to apply for the show, and he made it to the top 14.

One reason he didn’t make it in the final 12 had to do with a personality test he underwent as part of a psychiatric evaluation.

“They told me I had the most normal profile of anyone they interviewed,” he says. “They said they want people on the show that will almost kill somebody, but won’t kill somebody.”

Over the years, Terrell has also maintained a healthy diet, and has never smoked. But his lifestyle has included one factor that can spell trouble for the heart: the stress of a long career opening and running banks.

Terrell opened six separate banks in North Carolina, Florida and Tennessee, including Raleigh-based Paragon Commercial Bank.

His last position was as CEO of Greystone Bank, a boutique bank that underwrote apartment loans across the United States. Like Paragon, Greystone had no branch office and was funded entirely by broker deposits.

He was working at Greystone in Raleigh in 2009, but was spending Valentine’s Day at his second home in Florida the night that what he thought was terrible heartburn gave way to the crushing pain of a heart attack.

He says he broke out in a cold sweat and started vomiting violently. Then, he felt a sudden pain in his elbow, “like a hammer.” His wife drove him to a nearby hospital, where he was given blood-thinning medication that saved him.

5 blocked arteries

Doctors told them his five arteries had been almost entirely blocked, but his long habit of exercising had helped his body build a network of smaller capillaries that had been pumping his blood.

Exercise had saved his life, and could help him continue to extend it, doctors told him. Six weeks after his surgery, he was back at work. A few weeks later, he was taking five-mile walks.

In the meantime, Greystone’s purely commercial business model had run afoul of new regulations put in place in response to the mortgage crash, so Terrell oversaw the unusual process of liquidating and closing the bank.

He gradually laid off the bank’s 40 workers, and then retired. During that process, he started planning his cross-country journey, which would help him raise money and awareness of a good cause, as well as see the country with his wife.

The couple drove an RV from town to town, and Terrell would walk for six or so hours a day in his bright orange and yellow vest, decorated with a big heart. He would repeat his story to people he ran into, on television and in newspapers, and on his blog.

He also would share the mantra of exercise wherever he went, citing the American Heart Association’s axiom that for every hour of exercise, you extend your life by two hours.

Seven pairs of shoes

His travels included crossing the Mojave desert, 200 feet below sea level, where the temperature soared to 117. (Early in the trip in Wilson, the temperature dropped to the 20s.) He wore out seven pairs of shoes.

The people he met remain vivid in his memory. One man passed on a sealed envelope he had been given at church with instructions to pass it on at God’s urging. It contained $100.

Attendees at a church social collected $165 passing around a hat, and a 90-year-old member, scheduled for heart surgery the next day, insisted on ringing the church’s historic 200-pound silver bell for Terrell.

He’s not sure what his next challenge will be, but he and his son are mulling another shot at reality TV. This time, appropriately, he would try out for the “Amazing Race.”

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