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Allison Cleland vs. ARVC

Allison Cleland 

It was a spring day in May 2009 in Northern Ontario. The Sleeping Giant was awake and Lake Superior was starting to show that the warm summer days would soon be approaching. The last bit of snow had finally melted on the streets, which meant I could take off the snow chains that had been on my running shoes all winter.  My GPS watch named Garmin was charged and ready to monitor my running pace. A late afternoon run meant that the clear Northern Ontario sunshine would balance the harsh winds that often attacked my face if any skin was showing.  These were the days I lived for, jogging in the company of my favourite running friend Kim. Together we were training to run the Ottawa Marathon.

Though it would have been my fourth marathon in six years, I never did get a chance to cross the finish line in Ottawa and I never will.

On my last training run (2 weeks before the marathon) Kim and I started out on our regular 15km route in Thunder Bay.  Kim started the run strong and ran ahead.  She became so far ahead I could barely see her pony tail sway.  I had been feeling a bit lightheaded at the beginning of the run, but shrugged it off thinking I was just more tired than usual.

I was starting to lose track of Kim’s pony tail because my vision was caving in.  That woozy, dizzy, lightheaded, rollercoaster feeling got the best of me.  I woke up with my face on the pavement with two bystanders next to me talking to an ambulance driver on their cell phone.  My hips, knees and hands were cut up pretty badly – though I was even more sad that my Garmin took the brunt of the fall –  now with a scratched up watch face.  I didn’t know what had happened and couldn’t remember actually fainting.  Slightly embarrassed, I sat up and quickly convinced the bystanders that I was ‘fine’ and that my running friend was just up ahead.  They told me that I had been out for about 30 seconds and that an ambulance was on its way. I told them that I was fine and did not need an ambulance. I then repeated this to the ambulance dispatcher who cancelled my pick up. Since Kim & I carry cell phones when we run, I was able to call Kim to tell her I had fainted.  She sprinted back to me, insisted that I go to Hospital emergency, and sat with me in the emergency room for 4 hours.

Three incredibly long months later, I was diagnosed with Arrhythmogenic Right Ventricular Cardiomyopathy and had surgery to have an ICD implanted.  I had no idea what this diagnosis meant at the time though my cardiologist made me promise to pack in my running shoes and agree to a lifestyle of 130 beats per minute which did not include training for marathons.  Obviously this is not something that anyone wants to hear, especially someone who is a sports enthusiast and a high school physical education teacher. Though I never paid much attention to my heart rate during training, I did know that it would be way above 130 when I played sports and ran.

The dizziness that I experienced when I ran was not something that happened just once.  It had been ongoing for about a year and I was too stubborn to admit to myself that dizziness during physical activity is not normal.  I am competitive and like to be challenged.  I had challenged myself to not fear this condition and the inactive lifestyle that I thought it would bring.

I understand that I cannot define myself by my job or by the sports and leisure activities that I take part in. My "ARVC friendly” lifestyle now includes a wide variety of physical activities that I had never experienced before. I now participate in indoor rock climbing, hot yoga, golf, and road cycling. Though I thought I was in tune with my body when I trained for my marathons, I really was just tuning myself out, listening to loud music, keeping one foot ahead of the other.   I wasn’t paying attention to my breathing, heart rate, or how I actually felt when I was running.  If I had paid more attention, I would have realized that the dizziness I was experiencing wasn’t from not eating enough, heat exhaustion (not that I had to worry about that in Northern Ontario) or fatigue.

As a health and physical education teacher I realize how important it is for schools and coaching organizations to have an awareness of how inherited rhythm disorders can affect youth in Canada.  I am now an active volunteer with The Canadian SADS Foundation, helping to promote ‘The Warning Signs’ to fellow teachers, parents, coaches and students in Canada.

With my big ARVC scar-tissued heart, I really do feel alive when I am participating in physical activities.  I have become good friends with my heart rate monitor and use it religiously when I am trying out a new sport to make sure that it agrees with the guidelines I have been given.

I am ridiculously thankful to be writing my story for others to read and especially for those who may be making similar adjustments in lifestyle to the ones I have been forced to make.  The old cliché of ‘live every day as if it were your last’ has given me a new and clear perspective on the direction I want my life to go.  With the support of my loving friends and family and a defibrillator named Daphne on my side, I’m not going to let this heart condition get the best of me.

 Submitted July 2010

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