What Can Happen to the Human Heart After Months of Swimming?

Using ultrasound and a prototype waterproof monitor, medics and researchers are watching Ben Lecomte's heart closely. Can examining his EKG waves in ocean waves help us prevent fatal heart disease?

Long-distance swimmer Ben Lecomte has his whole heart invested in bringing attention to ocean health. But as he crosses the Pacific, medics are paying close attention to the health of his actual heart. Researchers want to see how the body's hardest-working muscle adapts over months of extreme exercise.

"They're looking to see if the center of the heart hardens through all this excessive training,"  explains Lynda Cole, manager and owner of DMS-Service, a group of monitoring specialists that has developed the prototype electrode Ben is wearing to obtain data on his heart rate as he swims. "We'll see if there is a change in the EKG actually happening; we're also looking to see if Ben has a low heart rate variability one day, does that affect how he swims the next day? His length, his output, his general well-being?"

Lynda and her team are interested in R to R variability, a cardiovascular metric that essentially measures how adaptable the heart can be. "You want [the heart] to have elasticity," she points out.  To get heart rate variability of data from Ben, Lynda and her team study Ben's heart rate and the incidence between each heartbeat via EKG signal to note any changes over time. "The logbook that he keeps is a great thing, because it tells us how the water is, how his emotional state is. We put that together with the data that we collect and we're seeing if we can predict anything."

The lightweight, waterproof technology Lynda developed for Ben has already solved challenges in cardiovascular medicine. For instance, it can provide instant diagnostics for something called long QT syndrome in children, a potentially fatal condition where an erratic heartbeat can cause fainting or seizures. "They can tell if you have this syndrome immediately by going into the water," Lynda notes. When she met a doctor at a recent trade show, she knew she had a solution to his diagnostic dilemma. "I said to the doctor, 'well, you know, I have somebody in the water; he's on prototype electrodes,'" she recounts. "I cut and pasted some of the strips together and sent them to him that night... he came back and he says, 'I've never seen anything so great. It's so easy to measure.' And now you can put those kids in the water, and you could diagnose this syndrome." 

Which is exactly the type of impact Ben and the Seeker crew hoped this mission would create: a tangible difference in the lives of others. "The work that we've done with Ben is helping us get these types of materials out into the industry today, so that we can help diagnose these other illnesses."