By Judy Wakefield
---- — Harvey Harrison calls his dog, Cocoa, his lifesaver.
The 72-year-old, Hall of Fame tennis player said if the pug-chihuahua mix hadn’t come into his life three years ago, he’s not quite sure he’d still be around to enjoy it.
Harrison credits his daily, 25-minute walks with Cocoa as the key to helping him eliminate his chronic problems with chest pain known as angina, which used to haunt him months after each of his heart surgeries. And he’s had plenty.
Since his 40s, Harrison has undergone 24 heart procedures, including triple bypass surgery.
“I call it plumbing problems inside me,” the engineer and inventor who lives on Standish Circle said. “I like to fix things and this time I couldn’t.”
Even though heart disease runs in his family — his father died at 26 while his mother had angina at 30, Harrison, who went to George Washington University on a tennis scholarship, said he was “absolutely shocked” when the pain from what felt like a brick on his chest brought him to the doctor’s office for the first time in 1985.
He had triple bypass surgery within three days. He was just 43 years old.
“I remember looking at a clock in my hospital room and every second was so slow. ... I thought, ‘I don’t have time for this.’ ... I mean, I was 43, working and a father with three kids ...., he said. “Ah ... real life was happening.”
And so, his heart saga officially began. He’s got 13 stents now, put in over the course of eight surgeries.
Three years ago, one of his best prescriptions for health came into his life. And he has his wife, Janis Baron, who runs the popular Kaleidoscope summer program in town, to thank for it.
“I didn’t really want a dog. Janis had just lost her mother and I thought the dog would be good for her,” Harrison said of Cocoa, who they adopted when he was a puppy.
Three years later, Harrison and Cocoa are inseparable. He said his daily walks with the adorable, well-behaved dog have helped him to keep his blood flowing and heart healthy. They also probably have allowed him to continue pursuing the game of tennis, which he still plays once a week.
Harrison, who has specialized in research and development as an engineer, said he is someone who is analytical and solves problems by connecting all of the elements. He’s even got a wind tunnel at his home to test wind levels of products as part of a research project. That line of thinking has helped in his approach to his medical issues, he said.
“Heart problems happen to people. You just have to learn how to deal with it,” he said.
Harrison’s doctors at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston were so impressed by his walking regiment that they asked him to be the captain of its Walking Club team at this weekend’s American Heart Association Boston Heart Walk.
Dr. Roger Laham, a cardiologist at the CardioVascular Institute at Beth Israel Deaconess who has treated Harrison, said the benefits of walking for heart health are often overlooked.
“Walking is a great motivation for those who say that other forms of exercise are too intimidating,” Laham wrote in an email.
Harrison was quick to accept the role of captain, saying Cocoa has given him the chance to enjoy his four grandchildren, among other things, and he’s happy to share his success story with others.
“I have my life thanks to this dog,” Harrison said as he smothered his four-legged, tail-wagging pal with smooches and affectionate gratitude.