Star wrestler-turned-coach discovers serious heart problem at 24

By Suzanne Marta, American Heart Association News

Heart disease survivor Jade Ahankoob. (Photo by Kia Ahankoob)
Heart disease survivor Jade Ahankoob. (Photo by Kia Ahankoob)

Jade Ahankoob loved wrestling.

As a teenager, she devoted herself to the sport. Her diligence helped her win state championships in high school. She became a two-time All-American in high school, then earned the accolade again as a college freshman.

Her passion, however, became too all-consuming. She left the team her sophomore year to focus on school.

She kept working out to remain in shape. Yet she occasionally felt short of breath while running, and her heart raced far more than it should've.

"I thought I was just out of shape because I had quit wrestling," she said.

At an urgent care clinic, a doctor diagnosed her with pre-ventricular contractions, which meant she was having an extra beat in the heart's lower chambers. She was urged to see a cardiologist. But her finances were already stretched thin, and – thinking something so intermittent couldn't be too serious – she didn't follow up.

"In my mind, I was young and super fit," she said.

After college, Jade taught English in South Korea. She also began doing mixed martial arts, training up to five hours a day. About a year into her training, she again began experiencing the breathlessness and heart racing she'd had in college.

By spring 2014, she was coaching high school wrestling in Los Angeles. Her symptoms became more noticeable. They happened more often and earlier in her exercise routine. Sometimes the symptoms caused her to vomit. She even passed out once while demonstrating a move during practice.

She'd also begun dating her now-husband Kia Ahankoob. They'd go on runs together and she couldn't keep up with him.

"I'd have to stop after 200 meters to rest," she said.

A doctor prescribed anti-anxiety medication and gave her another referral to a cardiologist. She made the appointment this time and was asked to prepare for it by wearing a monitor that tracked her heart's activity.

When she turned it in, she received an urgent call from the cardiologist.

"You need to get to the ER immediately," the doctor told her.

The monitor results showed physical activity caused her heart to go into an abnormal rhythm. During a cardiac ablation procedure to treat the abnormal rhythm, doctors discovered something far worse. Her right ventricle was losing its ability to pump blood.

Jade had arrhythmogenic right ventricular dysplasia, an inherited, progressive condition that usually appears in adulthood. Not surprisingly, its symptoms appear during strenuous exercise. She had all the classic symptoms – chest palpitations, dizziness, fainting and shortness of breath – but had avoided the one that usually reveals it: cardiac arrest.

She needed an implantable cardioverter defibrillator. And, at 24, she was told she would have to avoid straining her heart.

"I said, 'What do you mean I can't exercise?'" she said. "I was in such shock. My world just fell apart."

Testing her limits, Jade tried light exercises. They left her dizzy.

Just two months after getting her ICD, it went off.

"Out of nowhere, there was a bang and I fell forward," she said.

In the seven years since, her ICD has gone off twice more. She's also undergone a half dozen ablations to ease heart rhythm problems.

"The hardest part was not knowing when it could happen, especially because it was so serious," Kia said.

Jade found a support group for women with heart disease. She said the group helped her grieve for the way her life had changed.

"I was going to be a teacher and a wrestling coach and now I could barely walk," she said.

Her condition is often genetic. Looking back, Jade knew of an uncle who died suddenly while playing tennis at age 45, but never was diagnosed. Her siblings have since undergone genetic testing, but none showed any markers for the condition.

Jade's health has stabilized in recent years, though she continues to struggle with finding the right amount of activity that her heart can tolerate.

"It's still hard for me to be fine doing yoga when what I used to do was wrestle and beat people up," she said.

Now 31, Jade recently moved to a suburb of Denver. As a high school English teacher, at the start of each school year, she explains her condition to her students and goes over what to do in an emergency. She also encourages them to seek medical care if something seems wrong and offers a supportive ear if they are worried about anything.

Before moving to Colorado, she shared her story as an American Heart Association volunteer in Los Angeles.

Jade Ahankoob (left) with her husband, Kia. (Photo courtesy of Jade Ahankoob)
Jade Ahankoob (left) with her husband, Kia. (Photo courtesy of Jade Ahankoob)

"I was young and thought I was invincible," she said. "Now I realize that heart disease can happen to anyone."

For years, Jade found it hard to be around wrestling. But with Kia working as a coach, she's able to – carefully – assist.

"I was a wrestler, and my diagnosis really ripped my identity away," she said. "Now, I'm a teacher and a wife and have other things to look forward to and other things to fill that identity void."

Stories From the Heart chronicles the inspiring journeys of heart disease and stroke survivors, caregivers and advocates.

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