Hitting the Wall

Suzanne Maldonado-Rael, 34, of La Mirada, on how her heart stopped after the Surf City USA Marathon, and the fellow runner who saved her life.

Hitting the Wall
I woke up with a breathing tube in my throat. Everyone was really slow to tell me what had happened. The doctor asked, “Do you know where you are?” I shook my head. He said, “You’re at Hoag Hospital. Your heart stopped after the marathon. Do you know what day it is?” I shook my head again. Tears were running down my face, and I was unable to speak because of the breathing tube. He said, “It’s Wednesday.”


My sister was in the room. When we were younger, we used sign language to spell things out to each other. So when I heard it was Wednesday I got worried. The marathon was Sunday. I signed: “Call my boss.” She said, “Your boss knows. Don’t worry.” I was in the hospital and all I could think about was work!


It was a while before I learned what had happened, because I had only two memories of last year’s Surf City USA Marathon: giving my sister my iPhone just before the race, and waving to her at the finish line just before I collapsed.


A doctor running the race, Dr. Steven Kim, finished about eight minutes before me and saw me come in. Other people had collapsed when they finished, and the aides came running to help them up. But Dr. Kim said that my aides looked panicked. He overheard one of them say, “There’s no heartbeat,” so he came over and started giving me hands-on CPR until the ambulance arrived. He even got in and rode along with me. I was blessed to have him there. At the hospital, they told my family that I had a 2 percent chance of survival. My friend Lorena, who was there, instantly dropped to her knees and started praying.


After three days in an induced coma, they woke me up, and from that moment, I was fine. There was nothing wrong with my heart before the race. I was just exhausted, dehydrated, had low potassium, and no electrolytes. Those four things made my heart flutter and stop.


When the hospital released me, the doctors recommended that I never run again, that I not even exercise because my heart had been weakened. So I went eight months without running, which was really hard, because I love to run. It’d been a part of my life for more than 20 years.


In September I had a treadmill test, and my doctor cleared me to exercise again. I started jogging a slow mile on the treadmill, with a lot of walking mixed in. I was terrified at first, and a bit out of breath because I was so out of shape. But I don’t think I can find the words to describe how happy and excited I was when I finished and everything was fine, to know that I could do something that I loved again, and have a chance to work past my fear of what had happened. After a while, I was cleared to use the elliptical machine, with firm instructions to keep my heart rate below 150 beats per minute. At every point I had to follow two rules: never increase my workouts by more than 5 minutes, or my distance by more than half a mile.


It was a long, slow process, but eventually I was cleared to run, with the caveat that I never go farther than five miles. Ever. In October, I was able to run a 2K race and Dr. Kim ran it with me. He brought his whole family, and it was awesome.—R.P.

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