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Heart patient uses ICD experience to promote benefits of exercise

Oct. 16, 2014, 10:36 AM

Implantable cardiac defibrillator patient and avid runner Carrie Romero with Keith Churchwell, M.D., left, and Walter Clair, M.D. (photo by Joe Howell)

Carrie Romero of Columbia, Tennessee, is running for her life.

In 1997, when she was 28, Romero was diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy — a heart muscle disease that puts her at risk for sudden cardiac arrest (SCA). Her physician, Walter Clair, M.D., assistant professor of Medicine, told her that the best insurance policy was to get an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD).

An ICD is a generator with a battery and computer circuits that is implanted in the patient’s chest or abdomen. Electrical wires run from this generator to the heart. The heart is monitored for fast rhythms, and the generator will rapidly pace or shock the heart back to a normal rhythm. It can feel like a powerful kick to the chest when it sends a life-saving shock.

“When I first got the ICD, I didn’t expect the emotional side of how it affects you. Being a younger person, I had a sudden realization that my heart depended on this device and that it had to potentially save my life. At the time it was frightening,” Romero said.

“After I got the device, for about a year I thought I couldn’t do anything. I decided to put that thinking aside or I would be confined to my couch. I was not interested in that.”

Yet, Romero didn’t take up running for another 10 years. What started as a challenge from her husband in 2007 to improve her heart health resulted in her running her first 5K in 2008. Three triathlons and three half-marathons followed. In fact, her heart health improved so much that her cardiologist, Keith Churchwell, M.D., took her off medication and told her he only needed to see her in clinic once a year for a checkup.

Running has given Romero her health back and she in turn wants to inspire others to be passionate about incorporating exercise into their lives. Earlier this year, she was selected by Medtronic Philanthropy and Twin Cities in Motion to be one of 25 Medtronic Global Heroes. On Oct. 5, Romero ran the Medtronic Twin Cities 10-Mile run just two days after the 17th anniversary of her ICD implant.

Carrie Romero after a race with her husband, Gus Romero, and their sons Cason, left, and Trevin.

The Global Heroes program recognizes runners from around the world who have a medical device to treat conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, chronic pain and spinal and neurological disorders.

“Hope has been my weapon against heart disease, and I want to inspire other women to have that hope and not give up because no matter what the diagnosis is — heart disease or breast cancer — it doesn’t matter. If you have hope, you can fight it.

“Running has been a life-changing thing for me; something I never thought I could do, or wanted to do. I actually look forward to it. Everyone has to find what works for them,” Romero said.

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