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Athlete At Heart

Athlete at Heart: Learning to live with heart disease and find joy again, is an inspiring and entertaining autobiographical account by Kristina Bangma, a personal trainer and athletic coach from Vancouver, B.C. Much of her story struck close to home for me, because I too have had severe heart arrhythmias, and I know what it’s like to have exercise be a major source of enjoyment in life and have it taken away from you.

Kristina was an endurance athlete at a pretty elite level, having completed marathons, ironman triathlons, and cycling races. At the age of 40 she was participating in a cycling challenge in Vancouver. While pushing hard up one of the steep climbs, she got so lightheaded she almost fainted and actually had to get off the bike and lie down for a few minutes. She recovered and finished the ride, but knew something was not quite right. She was also having occasional severe vertigo episodes at this time, which were mistakenly thought to be an issue with inner ear crystals. Eventually she was diagnosed with Arrhythmogenic Right Ventricular Cardiomyopathy (avrc). This is a severe heart condition which causes heart arrhythmias and can also cause ventricle tachycardia, a rapid heart rate that can lead to heart attack. Unfortunately, there is no cure, other than possibly a heart transplant. The condition can progress and can be made worse by exercise, especially at higher intensities. This was needless to say crushing news for someone like Kristina, who not only enjoys pushing hard exercising but also makes a living and derives self-esteem from it.

Her treatment involved taking beta-blockers to reduce possibility of arrhythmias. Unfortunately, these drugs drive your resting heart rate lower, which can cause side effects like dizziness and lethargy, especially for elite athletes that have low resting heart rates to begin with. The side effects for Kristina were severe. Fortunately more recently an alternative anti-arrhythmia drug Flecainide has appeared on the market, and this works well for Kristina without the side effects of beta-blockers. She also later had a procedure to implant an Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator (icd). This device can be a life saver because it will automatically shock the heart back into normal rhythm when life-threatening arrhythmias occur, but is also disconcerting because you’re afraid to exercise too hard or you may get a severe shock in your chest.

The most important part of the book is about the severe depression Kristina goes into and how she pulls herself out of it, and learns how to exercise enough to enjoy it but at a level appropriate to her condition. She also learns other activities for enjoyment, and techniques like meditation to take the place of using intense exercise as a coping mechanism. The books has a very happy ending, and there is a strong case to be made that she ended up happier than she would have been without developing this condition and going through this ordeal. I highly recommend this inspiring book.

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