My heart

Before I get too into this blog, I need to outline my own heart condition. I say again, I’m not a doctor, I’m a stay at home mum, so remember that!!! Actually, trying to write this has made me realise how shockingly little I know about hearts and my own condition. Feeling slightly embarrassed!!

I was born with VSD with Aortic Incompetence. That means I had a hole in my heart and my aortic valve leaked. It’s a congenital disease, we think there may be some family history. At the age of three I had surgery at the Royal Brompton Hospital in London. The hole was closed but the valve continues to leak to this day. However the regurgitation is mild – about 10%.

I was incredibly lucky not to have many issues with my heart growing up. I can’t think of anything that my heart condition kept me from doing. I would have annual check ups at the Brompton and generally seemed to be doing okay.

Once I got into sport, again there seemed to be no problem. I do find that I take longer to get fit and then lose my fitness more quickly than the average person, but that could be my own imagination, although it makes sense to me as my heart is less efficient. My cardiologist had no concerns about me running, cycling or even doing the marathon. I trained carefully and well for the marathon and ran without any problems. To be honest, I felt invincible.

Once we decided we wanted a family, I went to the Brompton for a check-up and they did some tests and said I should be okay. So in time, we got pregnant. My local heart unit in Leeds monitored me very carefully throughout my pregnancy – they were brilliant, in fact. I can’t speak highly enough of them. I had three echoes and then at 18 weeks our baby had a fetal echo. This showed that they could see nothing seriously wrong with him although they were careful to warn us that echoes don’t reveal everything.  I loved being pregnant and felt wonderful throughout. I ran until 20 weeks or so and then cycled until a few days beforehand – I was so enormous I could hardly walk, my beloved bike was much more comfy.

The doctors had said they would prefer me to have an epidural to manage the stress on my heart. I have always believed it’s more important to have a healthy baby than ‘the perfect birth’ and also I don’t like pain, so that was wonderful. In the end, after a 38 hour labour I had a c-section which I also welcomed and our son, The Dude, was born. I am so grateful to God that his own little heart is perfect – there is a higher chance that his heart would have been faulty.

My Dude and me.

So you can imagine that I waltzed in to my 4 month check at the Leeds Heart Unit with my fat little baby expecting frankly to be patted on the back and sent home. It was a total shock therefore to be told that my aortic root had grown in diameter from 38mm which was normal for me to 42mm. This meant nothing to me, and still means very little, but the aortic root I believe is the muscle surrounding the valve. Getting bigger means there’s more pressure on the valve as it pumps blood through which increases the risk of rupture. Rupture means not nice things. We were told to put our plans for a second baby on hold and to come back in six months. In the meantime I could run for 30 mins max, and slowly, and cycle gently.

I was scared. And suddenly, for the first time I felt like a sick person.

Then we moved to the States. Before we left, I had another echo and my aortic root had grown to 44mm. Apparently they are keen to operate at 50mm and because I’m small (5″1) 44mm was worrying. Once in the States, with new healthcare, I had a CT scan and it showed no increase to my aortic root. I had to go back for an echo in six months.

Initially, I sat on the sofa, too nervous to do much exercise. I ran a bit (30 mins) but infrequently. And then I realised that frankly, sitting on my bum was not the way I wanted to tackle this. So I signed up for Bay to Breakers – a 7.5 mile race in San Francisco and started training. I loved it. I loved training. I loved the goal. I loved feeling like a runner again. I trained very carefully, increasing mileage slowly, running even more slowly and listening for any change to my heart. I felt fine – actually, I never felt anything other than fine even when the doctors were so worried. So I ran the race, loved every second and was on a total high.

The following week was my next heart check up. I had scheduled it for the following week so that even if they said I couldn’t run again, I had the medal, I had the glory, I had the moment. But amazingly, the echo revealed that my aortic root was anywhere between 38 – 40mm. There is a tolerance issue with the machines so the cardiologist was less ecstatic than I was. But it seemed that my heart was doing okay again.

Now I need to say now that I don’t recommend ignoring your cardiologist nor do I say that running is going to heal your heart. The doctor did make it clear that the risk of having a second child was significant. If we were set on a second child, he would recommend valve replacement surgery first. I was heartbroken about not having another baby, not having a daughter, not holding a newborn again but have come to terms with it. It is now more important for me to be here for the Dude than it is to hold a child I never had.

But I was hooked on running again and 2012’s resolution was to run 3 half marathons, assuming I felt well and my heart was good. I ran my first in February and loved every second, and I’m training for my second this July. I don’t take this for granted, I really don’t. Every run is a bonus.  I have decided that I won’t run another marathon, even though I would flipping LOVE to do so. The strain on the heart is so great I don’t think it’s worth the risk. It’s all about weighing the risk against the gain.

I recently read a FANTASTIC and much more scholarly article on running with a heart condition here. You should read it, it’s a darn sight better than anything I can write.

But anyway…that’s my heart history.

12 Comments Add yours

  1. Oh wow, thanks for the link! 🙂

    I don’t know if you know yet, but there are a big group of us who run & blog in the Bay Area, and many of them will also be running the SF Half or Full. There are links to a bunch of them on my blog if you ever want to run / race with other bloggers around here!

    1. Cathryn says:

      Thanks for the lovely invitation!!!

  2. Jim Pattillo says:

    Great post! I just had an aortic valve replacement via a minimally invasive thoracotomy (no broken bones). I posted about it at

    Please take a look and leave a comment. Great blog btw!!!

  3. BT says:

    Good on you for documenting the specifics of your situation to help others. I like you *even* more now.

    1. Cathryn says:

      That is a very sweet thing to say, thank you. It felt a little weird, being quite so open about something so personal but I thought it was important to share it!

  4. ErinAMG says:

    Dude. I didn’t know any of this about you! It’s really crazy (and scary) but kudos to you for figuring out how to manage it against/alongside life and certain endeavors (like running stuff, kiddos, etc.). Glad you’re ok though!! 🙂

    1. Cathryn says:

      Thank you! It’s generally not a big deal – it rarely impinges on my life but I do try to be careful!!

  5. Kate says:

    Just stalking your blog Cat 🙂 I didn’t know a lot of those specifics about your journey. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Cathryn says:

      Thanks for stalking me 🙂 I think it’s really important to share things like this – I’d love to meet another runner with a similar condition.

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