Tuesday 16 Sep 2014

Information and opinions presented here do not always represent the views of the American Heart Association.

STORIES FROM THE HEART: A heart attack at 37 sent marathon runner down a new path

Published: 9:00 am CDT, June 19, 2014

Julie Pannell dropped off her kids at school before heading to the YMCA to swim with her friend Hannah as part of their training for a triathlon.

After about 45 minutes in the lap pool, they went to the locker room. Suddenly, Julie felt like she had the wind knocked out of her. Then 37 and having run a marathon just two months before, she couldn’t understand what was happening.

Grabbing her chest and gasping for air, she told Hannah, “I can’t catch my breath.”

Those words set off alarm bells in Hannah’s head.

Ten years before, she had overheard two women talking about how most people don’t know that shortness of breath is one of the first signs of a heart attack in women. She distinctly remembers knowing that she would need that information one day.

For Julie, that someday was now.

***

She indeed was having a heart attack. Her left anterior descending artery was 100 percent blocked and another artery was 90 percent blocked with blood clots.

Julie learned of this from an emergency room nurse as she was being taken to the cardiac catheterization lab to have stents inserted to open her blocked arteries.

“I wasn’t panicked and didn’t freak out,” she said. “Instead, I had Psalm 23 running through my mind, ‘Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for you are with me.’”

The type of heart attack Julie had is sometimes called a “widow maker” because of the low rate of survival. Because of her fitness and youth, and because of Hannah’s quick response, Julie was able to go home the next day with just a bandage. She had no residual heart damage.

“I truly feel like a walking miracle and am thankful to be here,” Julie said.

***

Despite many tests, the doctors were puzzled about why Julie had a heart attack in November 2010.

She has no family history of heart disease, exercises regularly, eats healthy and had low cholesterol and normal blood pressure. Although further tests uncovered an over-clotting disorder involving a protein called Factor V, doctors don’t believe this caused the heart attack because of the location of her troublesome clots.

As the months passed, Julie dealt with fear and worry, wondering if she would have another attack. Her remedy for this agony?

“I actually gave up fear for Lent that year,” she said.

Ultimately, Julie got back to running and got back in the water. She even completed the triathlon she was training for at the time of her heart attack.

***

With a new perspective on life, Julie and her husband Wade decided to take a big chance.

Julie gave up being a stay-at-home mom and substitute teacher, and Wade left a corporate job that kept him on the road half of the time, to open their own running store, Fleet Feet Sports in Spokane, Washington.

“I decided that rather than being defined as a heart attack victim, I am a survivor,” Julie said. “This has given me hope and purpose.”

Julie finds joy in helping people on their fitness journey and loves the community that has been created through the store’s different training groups. They have programs from walking to marathon training.

Julie (left) going red with Ali Vincent, the first female winner of NBC's "The Biggest Loser"

“I love watching them take control of their health and accomplish goals they never thought possible,” she said. “I’ve come to accept the fact that I may never know why, as a healthy 37-year-old runner, I had a heart attack. Instead, I will use my experience to inspire others to take their health seriously and motivate them towards an active and healthy lifestyle.”

***

 Julie is quite healthy now. She takes an aspirin each day because of her history and the clotting disorder, and sees her cardiologist for an annual check-up and blood work. Her successful recovery prompted her to embrace the mission of the American Heart Association.

She has been involved with the Spokane Heart Walk since her heart attack, and Fleet Feet Sports even offers a 5K Heart Run in conjunction with the Heart Walk. This year, Julie spoke to 600 people at the Spokane Go Red for Women Luncheon.

“Even though I was nervous, I felt comfortable knowing it was going to help others and maybe even save lives,” she said.

“I want to encourage others to take their life back into control. If it can happen to me – someone who doesn’t look like the face of a heart attack – maybe it will make them think twice and realize they should do something to take care of themselves.”

Julie (right) and Pat White, one of her training partners, finishing a marathon.

***

Photos courtesy of Julie Pannell

***

Do you know a “Story from the Heart” we should tell?

Send an email to stories@heart.org that’s as brief or as detailed as you’d like.

Previous “Stories from the Heart” include:

‘He didn’t want to look at our daughter and tell her I’m not coming home’

Lifting a 3,500-pound car was only the start to saving her dad’s life; knowing CPR made a difference, too

Retired Coast Guard Senior Chief shares story to educate others – especially men