And the Beat Goes On

Marathon runner Christy Kirk reflects on 20 years since her life-changing surgery

Twenty years ago, shortly after finishing a training run for the 2003 Boston Marathon, the course of my life completely changed.

I was 27 years old, recently married, three months shy of graduating from dental school, and I had a stroke. Despite being an avid runner and swimmer most of my life, all the miles I’d logged in the pool and on the road did nothing to prevent that terrible event. Unbeknownst to me, I had a small hole between the top two chambers of my heart that caused the stroke at such a young age.

I met with numerous doctors to find a path forward, one of whom recommended open heart surgery to repair the defect. I was petrified. How could I graduate from dental school, move to Boston, start my residency and my married life while also healing from open heart surgery? Thankfully, I got a second opinion from a doctor who recommended a minimally invasive procedure with an Abbott Amplatzer device that would close the hole, preventing further strokes.

I opted for the latter.

After my stroke, I couldn’t help but feel anxious that another medical catastrophe was sure to follow. Thankfully for me, running is as much a form of meditation as it is exercise, and before long, with the help of my husband, I was back to my routine. I also met friends in Boston who encouraged me and coaxed me back into racing.

Returning to the sport with the support of family and friends helped me heal from the trauma of that event, even though it took a long time to feel like myself again.

Now, at age 47, I’ve run 17 full marathons, including several with Tedy’s Team to raise money for stroke and heart disease awareness. Over the years of raising four kids and practicing dentistry alongside my husband, running has accompanied me through highs, lows and the unimaginable. It’s been my salvation, hope, motivation, social outlet, source of pride, avenue for philanthropy, connection to the community, and my “therapist.”

This year’s Boston Marathon marked 20 years since my stroke, so it was incredibly special to me and my family. It also felt like a full-circle moment since the device that fixed the hole in my heart was made by Abbott, the healthcare company that is also a partner in the Boston Marathon and the Abbott World Marathon Majors. 

So why am I running? I’m running because running has healed me, both mentally and physically. I’m running because I love it, and I want to celebrate my 20 years of health and happiness. I’m running because I can. 

May is National Stroke Awareness Month. To learn more about strokes, including risk factors, symptoms and types of treatments, visit the American Stroke Association.

Even if athletes appear healthy after treatment or surgery, or to have a disorder under control, underlying medical conditions could exist. Always consult a physician and get a full health evaluation prior to marathon training.

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