John F. Russell: The gift of life
January 3, 2010
The signs had been there for more than 12 years, but it took 10 miles of the Chicago Half Marathon before Kimberly Heckbert could read them.
The 24-year-old, who grew up in Steamboat Springs, always has excelled at sports. She shined as a member of Steamboat Springs High School's girls tennis team, and she succeeded during college at Ohio Northern University, where she helped her team win two conference titles.
Through it all, unknown to her, she lived with a silent killer.
When Heckbert was 12, her mother took her to the doctor, where she was examined after bouts with dizziness. She was tested and told that she had an irregular heartbeat that she was expected to outgrow. The condition sometimes made it difficult to focus on a tennis match, but she discovered that she could live with it.
That brings us back to mile 10 of the Chicago Half Marathon in September, where she was starting to realize that the symptoms she had lived with since childhood were catching up to her faster than the runners behind her.
As she closed in on the finish line, Heckbert became dizzy, and her vision started to blur. Still, she finished the race and afterward blamed her problems on the strain. But deep down, she knew something was wrong. After she blacked out while climbing stairs at work a few days later, the message finally hit home.
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For the second time, Heckbert underwent a battery of tests, but like before, the doctors were unsure what had caused her vision to blur and her head to swim. The idea that it was caused by an irregular heartbeat seemed logical, but doctors wanted to know more. They sent her home with an external heart monitor, and the problem became clear when she decided to wear it while jogging.
The truth was that Heckbert suffered from a rare heart condition called ventricular tachycardia.
It's tough to diagnose because the symptoms often lay hidden until it's too late. People suffering from the condition can drop dead without warning while doing everyday things such as climbing the stairs, playing tennis or running. It was clear that Heckbert had been living on borrowed time.
These days, she is on a regimen of beta-blockers to slow her heartbeat and had surgery last month to implant a pacemaker-defibrillator. The device will keep her heartbeat steady, and if it does race, the defibrillator will shock her, causing her heart to return to normal levels.
Recently, there has been a movement in youth sports to have young athletes checked for heart problems before they start playing. Heckbert applauds the effort and said she thinks her problem would have been caught sooner now that doctors understand more about her condition.
For Christmas this year, Heckbert's parents didn't go out and buy a top-of-the-line tennis racket or a new pair of running shoes. Instead, they wrapped up an external heart monitor, and all of them enjoyed the gift of life.