Most people don’t notice their hearts when they walk up a flight of stairs or run across a yard, taking each steady beat for granted. But for heart disease survivors Ginny Ekins, 28, and Kyle Erwin, 15, every single heart beat is a blessing.
That’s why Ekins and Erwin wanted to raise funds for the American Heart Association’s Heart Walk last Saturday in Riverfront Park. The national event is geared to celebrate heart disease survivors while raising money for ongoing heart research.
In Spokane, 400 people participated in the walk, with $60,000 raised so far. Organizers hope additional donations help them reach a $110,000 goal.
“For a lot of people with heart disease, the research for their procedures wouldn’t be available without people like the heart association,” Ekins said. “You are saving lives with the money you raise. It sounds cliché, but it’s legitimately true for this.”
Ekins knows from experience. While attending Gonzaga Law School in her early 20s, Ekins began experiencing dizzy spells and heart palpitations.
With numerous heart arrhythmias and a malfunctioning sinus node, Ekins’ erratic heartbeat was so complicated she was sent out of state for surgery.
Things went from bad to worse. Ekins developed clots in her heart while in the hospital for her first surgery. Several months later a catheter punctured her heart during a second surgery. After five minutes of cardiac arrest and oxygen deprivation, Ekins almost died and she lost many of her memories. She also developed another complication and doctors told her it was too risky to have children.
“The puncture had caused scar tissue to grow on my heart sac,” Ekins explained. “That was causing constriction and strangling my heart.”
Hardly anybody treats that condition. My doctor in Spokane said he has never seen someone with this condition. It’s very rare.”
This time she went to the Mayo Clinic where surgeons removed Ekins’ pericardium, the protective barrier around the heart. After the innovative surgery she was cleared to have one baby.
Last Saturday, Ekins celebrated with friends and family by walking with 5-month-old daughter Olivia Mae in the Heart Walk.
Kyle Erwin’s family also had something to celebrate.
Born with multiple heart defects, Erwin had his first open heart surgery when he was 6 months old. While he tried to live as normal a childhood as possible, his activity was limited and his heart health monitored closely.
When Kyle was 13, his parents knew something was wrong. “He couldn’t run down a basketball court without getting really fatigued. He was sleeping more. Things were not right,” said his mom, Kim Erwin.
Kyle’s heart was failing and he needed a new one. By the end of seventh grade he couldn’t walk up a flight of stairs.
“He was declining. He was nonactive. He did a lot of video games and a lot of sleeping. He just kind of hung out. It was a very low-key lifestyle for him,” Kim Erwin said.
On June 17, 2011, Kyle received a heart transplant. After recovering for a year he is trying activities he couldn’t attempt with his old heart, which doctors said looked like it belonged to a 90-year-old, not a teenager.
“He is enjoying all these things that he could never do,” said his mom. “He is rock climbing. He can ride his bike. He has learned how to long board with his sister. He learned how to wake board this year. Those are things he’s never been physically able to do.”
A freshman in high school, Kyle Erwin raised more than $1,000 for the Heart Walk. Funds raised go to support heart and stroke research, as well as community programs.
“I knew one day we’d be able to participate and give back and use this story to bring awareness,” Kim Erwin said. “We reached out to his Caring Bridge site and friends and family to donate on his behalf and raise funds to cure heart disease, so nobody else has to live like he’s had to. … This is the first time in our lives with him that we are sleeping better, that he is good. He is happy. He is fairly healthy. He has a really good functioning heart and he has a good outlook.”