The Heart Of A Champion

April 17, 2010 by  
Filed under Inspiring People

Shannon Kelly’s heart condition almost killed her. Now she has a new hobby: competing in triathlons.

I remember being able to run a mile when I was 13 years old, but I started to slow down after that and I didn’t know why. I played tennis in high school, but when my coach wanted me to run a couple of laps around the track, I almost passed out. He would say, “Shannon’s got a good stroke, but she won’t run for the ball.” I wanted to, but I couldn’t.

When I was 18, my mom found out that she had hypertrophic cardiomyopathy—an enlarged heart muscle. Her mother had died of the same thing at 47, and my mom was 42; she was really worried. Then the cardiologist tested my younger brother and me for the disease. He was fine, but I had it. He said I would probably need a transplant at some point.

Photographed by Andrew Brusso
“After my transplant, I thought, Now I can start my new life,” says Shannon Kelly, 39.

My mother’s condition deteriorated over the next few years, and I got a pacemaker at 21. It helped my heart beat better, but I still had trouble

My mom got a transplant when I was 24; it saved her life. But I wasn’t sick enough to qualify. After college, I became a website designer, married, and settled with my husband in Yonkers, New York. With each passing year, my disease got worse and our life got more constricted. By my mid-30s, I couldn’t make a bed without getting winded. I had to sleep propped up on pillows so I could breathe.

Then, in April 2006, I wound up back in the ICU with heart failure. My doctor said, “There’s nothing more I can do for you at this point. Your heart is dying.” He recommended me for a transplant. I was in such bad health that they put me at the top of the waiting list, but it can still take ages to find a match; some people never do. Luckily, I got the call within a month. The surgery took six hours, but as soon as I woke up, I could feel it—my new heart was so strong.

When I left the hospital, I could climb the eight flights of stairs in the unit without stopping. I decided I was really going to build up my strength. I started running on a treadmill at the gym and signed up for tennis lessons. I could finally run for the ball!

I wanted to push myself further. So in July 2008, I played tennis in the Transplant Games. Then the wife of one of my teammates told me about a women’s triathlon—a half-mile swim, followed by a 12-mile bike ride and a 2.1-mile run. The event was scheduled for a year later at Mount Snow, Vermont, and I thought, Let me see if I can work up to that.

Soon I was running three miles a day. I bought a bike and started swimming. And one morning last summer, I was standing by a lake with several dozen other women. They write your race number on your arm with a marker, and I had them add the words Thank you, donor family.

Once we jumped into the water, adrenaline took over. They’d assigned me a “swim angel” with a flotation device in case I had trouble, but I left her behind. The biking part was a killer, but the running seemed easy. I finished the race in the middle of the pack—number 93 out of 189—and it felt amazing.

I’ve signed up to do more triathlons this year, and I’ll be thinking about my donor each time. All I know about him is that he was 17 years old and that he and his family gave me a second chance at life. This heart is a tremendous gift, and it’s up to me to stay fit and take care of it.

For more stories like this one go to: http://www.rd.com/your-america-inspiring-people-and-stories/against-the-odds-4-athletes-who-overcame-enormous-obstacles/article175290.html

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