by Len Lear
Caitlin McKeon, 32, who grew up in Blue Bell and now lives in Oreland, was always the very embodiment of fitness and health up until this year.
McKeon is a graduate of Norwood-Fontbonne Academy in Chestnut Hill, Mt. St. Joseph High School in Flourtown, Catholic University in Washington, D.C. and Chestnut Hill College with a master’s degree in early childhood development. She is tall, thin and looks like the runner she always was. Even today she runs a few times a week, 10 miles combined. She has almost never used drugs, even legal ones by prescription or over the counter.
“I would take prescription drugs if a doctor prescribed them, but I definitely avoided Tylenol and illegal drugs,” McKeon said.
Early this year, however, she began feeling extremely run down, exhausted and routinely short of breath.
“I had just gotten engaged and had my divorce finalized,” she said last week. “I started having trouble breathing. I thought it was panic attacks. I struggled walking around Franklin Institute one day. I had always been active physically, so I could not understand it. I went to our family doctor, George Romanzo, at Ambler Medical. He listened to my heart and could tell it was irregular and that I had shortness of breath.”
McKeon was sent to Abington Hospital, where tests were run and where she had been three weeks earlier with viral gastroenteritis (stomach flu). She was placed on IV fluids.
“They thought it was dehydration,” she said. “My ankles swelled up. They moved me to the cardiology unit and admitted me and ran an echocardiogram. I wound up with a score of 5, the lowest possible score. (Ed. note: the score represents the small fraction of fluid ejected from a heart chamber with each contraction.) They did not know how I could have even walked into the emergency room.
“They said I was in heart failure and most likely viral myocarditis. Very rare. It left a valve enlarged, inflamed, which weakened my heart. But an MRI showed there was no viral scarring, which a viral infection would leave behind. They still can’t figure it out. Maybe it’s the broken heart syndrome. There really is such a thing. The built-up stress has to be a factor.”
McKeon had another procedure in June for heart palpitations, or PVCs (premature ventricular contractions, which are extra heartbeats that begin in one of the heart’s two lower pumping chambers. These extra beats disrupt the regular heart rhythm, sometimes causing a fluttering or skipped beat in the chest). Her seven-hour “ablation” procedure, in which diagnostic catheters were threaded through blood vessels, was supposed to restore normal heart rhythm.
“It was not as successful as they had hoped, and I’m now on a lot of medication,” McKeon recalled.
As a result of her heart condition, McKeon started working out in July with Allison Bradley, owner of Chestnut Hill Cycle Fitness, and the workouts have produced a dramatic improvement.
“I’m already defying the odds,” McKeon said. “I could not walk before, although years ago I would walk three miles. in Valley Green and think nothing of it. But I’m whipping around now like I used to. Before I was exhausted all the time, and now I have the same energy level I had when I was in high school.”
How unusual is it for an otherwise healthy young person to have heart failure? According to the Advanced Cardiovascular Life Support Training Center at the American Heart Association’s national center in Dallas, “Twenty percent of people who have a heart attack are 40 or younger, a rate that has risen two percent a year for 10 years, according to new research. Some of these people are now in their 20s and early 30s, said senior study author Dr. Ron Blankstein, a cardiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
“Some people believe that children and young adults do not have to worry about heart disease because they are too young to develop these issues,” Blankstein said. “This is simply not true as heart health issues, and even a heart attack, can occur at any age. People can even begin to develop plaque (atherosclerosis) in their arteries during childhood.
“There are times when cardiovascular disease in the young is not caused by any precursors for cardiovascular disease or an unhealthy lifestyle. In these situations, undiagnosed congenital heart defects, abnormalities or an infection tend to be the culprit … usually caused by a structural defect in the heart that causes oxygenated and deoxygenated blood to mix.”
After earning her master’s degree from Chestnut Hill College, McKeon went to England to visit a cousin. While there, however, she met her now-ex-husband and stayed there for seven-and-a-half years. After returning to the U.S., they soon separated and divorced.
“Going through a divorce is extremely emotional, stressful and painful, but there is a happy ending because I’m getting married on Nov. 30 to Marc Murphy, 39, who is the director of a recruiting company,” McKeon said. “I actually waited on him at McGowan’s Café in Sea Isle City when I was 17.”
While in England, McKeon was teaching in an elementary school outside of London and loved it, but being away from her family for so many years took its toll.
“They have a ‘stiff upper lip culture’ in England, not warm and fuzzy,” she said. “When you have a problem, the attitude is ‘Get over it. You can drink the problem away.’ They are a lot more reserved over there.
“This journey has changed my perspective on life. Life is precious! I’m learning to let go of anxiety. Most people think heart failure would be the worst thing possible, but I think it was an opportunity to make myself into a better person. It was the perfect storm, Viral pneumonia and a tremendous amount of stress, so my heart has a problem pumping! It’s so scary. My heart is in ‘perfect condition,’ but it’s just not pumping properly.”
You can reach Len Lear at firstname.lastname@example.org