I have been a cardiac patient for 18 years. When I look back on what I’ve been through, I could be very depressed, upset and continue to stay in the sick patient role. But I make the choice each and every day to “Begin each day with a grateful heart.”
At age 37, while on active duty as a Navy nurse, my heart started racing. I was not dizzy or short of breath, but I became very concerned. I went to see my primary care provider, and he immediately took me to the emergency room. I was in ventricular tachycardia, and my heart was beating 180 to 220 times per minute (normally a heart beats 60 to 80 times per minute). The next few hours and weeks were a nightmare. After one month, I finally received the diagnosis of arrythmogenic right ventricular dysplasia (ARVD), a type of cardiomyopathy, which weakens the heart muscle. I received an implanted cardiac defibrillator (ICD) and was told I needed to retire as I was no longer deployable worldwide. Single mom, four kids, no career, and a health care team that could not tell me anything about what my future would hold.
During the next 14 years, I underwent several ablations and heart mappings, multiple medication changes, five ICDs, one lead extraction for a fractured ICD lead, one recalled ICD, several shocks, and two years in congestive heart failure.
Finally, on Nov. 13, 2013, I received my heart transplant at Sharp Memorial Hospital in San Diego. I was the 13th transplant that year. My hero, my heart donor, was 19-year-old nursing student Nicole, who had made the choice to be an organ donor.
Eight weeks after my heart transplant, I volunteered to work the Donate Life booth at the Carlsbad Marathon and Half Marathon. While cheering runners on, my transplant coordinator, Kristi Ortiz came running by and said, “Melissa, you can be out here running next year!” I was exhilarated and being high on steroids, it was the best thing I had ever heard! Especially after having ARVD and being told I could not do stressful, intense workouts.
That night, I looked up the website for the Carlsbad Marathon and Half Marathon because I really didn’t know what was involved. On the website, I noticed a box on the screen, “Lucky 13.” Well, of course that was for me because I received my transplant on 11/13/2013, and I was the 13th transplant of the year. So I applied for and was accepted to be on Tri City Medical Center Lucky 13 running team.
Each year, 13 people who have overcome some kind of medical condition are selected to be on the team and train to complete the half-marathon. So, 431 days after my transplant, I completed my first half-marathon. On Jan. 14, I completed my fifth half-marathon and now am training for my sixth.
I have lived more in the last four years than the previous 14. I follow a heart-healthy diet. I do everything my transplant team says. We have an excellent partnership. I take my medications and monitor my blood pressure, heart rate and weight every day. I exercise a minimum of three times a week for an hour. Actually, I do some form of exercise every day, even if it’s just a seven minute high intensity interval training (HIIT) or core workout. I challenge myself to see how many squats I can do before my electric toothbrush turns off.
I enjoy hiking, walking, jogging, paddle boarding and CrossFit. I am a registered nurse, and I work full time. I volunteer for Donate Life and the American Heart Association. Most recently, I became a WomenHeart Champion after attending the WomenHeart Symposium at the Mayo Clinic. I feel by sharing my story I can inspire women to become more involved in their health and change their lifestyle to protect their heart. People are amazed at what I can do on spare parts, so I challenge them: “Just think what you could accomplish with the original equipment, if you take care of it.”
It all starts with a positive attitude and a choice to begin each day with a grateful heart.