Growing up, Alanna Gardner learned she couldn't be too active. If she was, she would faint.
Sometimes the spells prompted an emergency room visit. Doctors, however, never diagnosed the cause.
Reluctantly, she gave up participating in sports.
But after going away to college, Alanna started to wonder if the fainting was a signal that she simply wasn't in shape. She began exercising – slowly at first. She maintained a healthy diet. And she had no more mysterious episodes.
At 25, she trusted her body enough to sign up for Philadelphia's 10-mile Broad Street Run. Her training plan called for her to run a 10K event a few weeks before.
Alanna considered herself to be in the best shape of her life. So when fatigue hit during the event, she felt "defeated." And soon she was. As she crossed the finish line, she fainted for the first time in seven years.
"I couldn't find my friend or an ambulance, but I wasn't worried because it was such a normal thing," she said. "So I just sat down figuring someone would find me."
The next thing she remembers is waking up in the hospital.
Alanna had experienced a major heart attack that caused her to go into cardiac arrest. In other words, not only did she have a problem with her heart's plumbing (a blocked artery that limited blood flow), this caused the heart's electrical power to go out.
Luckily, two race participants who were nurses saw her in distress and immediately began CPR. At the hospital, doctors performed a procedure in which they opened the artery using a stent. She was placed in an induced coma for three days to help her body recover from all the trauma.
Additional testing at the hospital revealed she had an anomalous or "misplaced" left coronary artery. In this congenital heart defect, the left coronary artery begins carrying oxygen-rich blood from the pulmonary artery instead of from the aorta. As a result, the heart doesn't get enough blood and oxygen.
When Alanna exerted herself, her defective artery became pinched as it worked to supply enough blood. As a child, that pinch would relax as soon as she fainted, and the blood supply would be restored, reviving her. But when she fainted after the race, the pinch didn't release. This caused a blockage and fluid flowing back into her heart.
A few weeks later, Alanna underwent open-heart bypass surgery.
After learning her condition could have a genetic link, Alanna heard from several members of her family on her dad's side that they too had congenital heart defects.
"No one had ever talked about it before because no one associated fainting with a heart issue," she said. "Had we known more about our family's history, we may have been able to make better use of our health care appointments and push for more answers."
While Alanna couldn't change the fact that she had a heart defect, doctors said her good overall health played a role in her recovery.
Alanna's commitment to a heart-healthy diet and plenty of exercise helped inspire her mom, Yolanda, to take a harder look at lifestyle changes she could make.
After Alanna's heart attack, Yolanda was diagnosed with high blood pressure. Combined with a family history of heart disease and diabetes, Yolanda decided to change her diet to cut out sweets, fatty foods and red meat. She also changed some long-held family recipes to make them healthier.
Yolanda, 64, also changed her approach toward health care visits, being more proactive and getting a second opinion if she doesn't feel her questions are being answered.
"I come in armed with questions and research," she said. "It's a patient's responsibility to participate and not just go along for the ride. It's up to each of us to take care of our own health and make a commitment to changes."
Now 32, Alanna works as a therapist and a fitness instructor in Philadelphia.
"Having the heart attack at that age is extremely traumatic and it definitely rocked my identity, but so many positive things came out of it," she said. "I was able to reignite my passion for teaching people about fitness and health. I'm giving my students a way to see life's challenges as something you can grow from."
Stories From the Heart chronicles the inspiring journeys of heart disease and stroke survivors, caregivers and advocates.
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