By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS
Workout queen Kristy Sidlar was doing what made her happy on her 31st birthday. She was training for a triathlon, biking up a hillside in northern California on her way to the gym to swim some laps.
“I was super athletic, kind of to the point of being a little crazy,” Sidlar said, adding she had taught aerobics and once rollerbladed 50 miles from San Jose to San Francisco.
“I was cresting this hill on part of a mountain, and my heart rate went to 280 beats a minute.”
Sidlar didn’t get overly concerned because this had happened before. Usually her heart rate would return to normal after a couple of minutes. Still, a few years prior she’d seen a doctor who prescribed some medicine and told her she should be OK. He also mentioned a possible test.
Now, with no one in sight in this remote area between two towns, some 40 minutes had passed.
“Because it was so fast for so long, I was getting really lightheaded,” Sidlar said. She sat on the side of the road and finally lay down. “I was just fading in and out of consciousness, just assuming I was going to die.”
Fortunately another cyclist came by and called 911. Paramedics arrived and used an automated external defibrillator, or AED, to shock Sidlar’s heart back into a normal rhythm. At the hospital, doctors checked Sidlar out and let her go, telling her to schedule the test she’d heard about before.
Sidlar recalls skipping her workout routine for maybe one day. But while running on the treadmill, her heart raced again. Back to the hospital she went, but this time doctors spent 10 days trying to figure out what was wrong.
The diagnosis was a rare form of heart disease called arrhythmogenic right ventricular dysplasia. In people with ARVD, muscle tissue in the right ventricle dies and is replaced with fatty or scar tissue. The process disrupts the heart’s electrical signals and causes abnormal rhythms. It usually affects teens or young adults and can cause sudden cardiac arrest.
Sidlar was not only troubled that the disease gets progressively worse but that it gets worse with intense exercise.
The doctors told her, “We can’t fix you, but we can save your life.”
“When they … told me you have this horrible disease and you can’t train anymore, I just about lost it. That was really hard for me to give up,” she said. “I put it all into perspective and realized I’m still going to be able to live a relatively healthy life. I just need to make some changes in my habits and what I did for exercise.”
Doctors placed an implantable cardioverter defibrillator, or ICD, into Sidlar’s chest to shock her heart if needed. They also prescribed medicine to keep her heart rate under control.
It has been 16 years since Sidlar was forced to cut back on her extreme exercise regimen. Now she walks, works out at a moderate pace on the elliptical and does yoga.
She also keeps busy as head of business development for a global recruiting company. She recently moved from Michigan to Singapore, where she heads a sales team that stretches from India to Australia. Her husband, Dave Sidlar, helps ensure she watches her health and stress levels.
In the years since that Halloween day in 1999, Sidlar has championed the cause of heart health, raising money and volunteering for the American Heart Association. Her two core messages: You don’t have to be old or fat or eat fried food to be at risk for heart disease, and be proactive with your doctors.
“I know for too many people, especially women, doctors will say, ‘It’s just stress’ or ‘Women tend to have more irregular heartbeats. Don’t drink coffee.’ We just all have to advocate for ourselves and push until we are completely satisfied with the answers. When we can get the tests run, we have to get the tests run.”
Sidlar, now 47, has outlived two defibrillators and last year got her third.
“I think I might make it to an 85-year-old woman like most of my contemporaries,” she said. “I didn’t know that was going to be the case 10 years ago.”
Photos courtesy of Kristy Sidlar