Close To Our Hearts: One Day At A Time

A runner, mom of one, and former respiratory therapist celebrates things as they come in the midst of a years-long battle with an erratic heartbeat.

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Photo by Jeff Nelson

 In 2010, a routine endometriosis and hernia surgery brought Anna Smith to the hospital. It was supposed to be a no-worries procedure. Then her surgeon noticed something strange in her pre-op checkup. “He said I had an interesting heartbeat,” Smith recalls, “and suggested that, just for giggles, I get an EKG.”

What they found wasn’t funny. “In a 24-hour period, your heart beats about 100,000 times,” she says. “Mine was skipping every other beat, essentially only beating 50,000 times a day.”

For the doctors, this was a surprise. As a 30-year-old competitive athlete who played rugby in college and ran post-college, Smith didn’t fit the image of a heart patient. Just the opposite: While pregnant with her son, she’d placed third in her age group in a five-mile mountain run. But for Smith, who worked as a respiratory therapist, the discovery was a little different. Though she never imagined she had heart dis – ease, she’d known something was up for a while: “I had bee n battling fatigue since my son, about two years old then, was born. Doctors kept telling me it was because I just had a baby and was busy.”

After getting the okay from a cardiologist, Smith’s doctor went ahead with the planned surgery. With a cardiac anesthesiologist to monitor her heart rate, the procedure went well. But immediately after, something went wrong. “I suffered a mild heart at tack in the recovery room. I spent the next couple of months in and out of the hospital trying to control my heart rate. I’ve had seven cardiac ablations to fix the irregular heartbeats (or arrhythmias), but they’re persistent. Every time we got rid of one arrhythmia, another one would pop up. It was like they were standing in line going, ‘OK, it’s my turn. I want to come out and be a bother.’

“I got a pacemaker in September 2011 and had never felt so good in my life. Interestingly, on Jan. 31, 2013, I suffered a brain injury due to lack of oxygen while I was sleeping—a result of a complication from a heart surgery. My pacemaker saved my life: I wasn’t breathing, but the pacemaker kept my heart beating. I spent the next four days on a ventilator and more than two years re-learning everything.”

Today, Smith; her husband, Gareth; and their son, Os, take things one day at a time. “The thing about nearly dying is that you decide to choose your battles. We take things in stride and celebrate as much as we can.”

That includes staying involved in sports. “I recently ran a half marathon with the help of a guide,” Smith says. “I don’t know if my doctors would have said that was possible six years ago. You can live within certain boundaries; you set them or have other people set them for you.”

Positive diet change: Overall, Americans are eating more whole grains and drinking fewer sugary beverages.