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Devices give runners a new kind of normal

Posted by: under Minnesota newsmakers Updated: September 30, 2011 - 9:13 AM

Every year, I wander down to Summit Avenue from my house in St. Paul — cowbell in hand — to watch the Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon from about the 22-mile mark. It’s an awe-inspiring sight seeing the mass of runners soldier up that hill (trust me, there is one!) on the Capitol city’s signature boulevard. So many runners, so many stories, each inspiring in their own way.
 

This year, Fridley-based Medtronic has honored 25 long-distance runners who have benefitted from some type of medical technology as their “Global Heroes.” They come from 10 different countries, but for the purposes of this blog post, I sought out the three who hail from our fair region.
 

Ania (pronounced ON-YA) Ritter is a 37-year-old mother of two small children from Minneapolis who will be running in the marathon. She has a pacemaker to treat a heart condition called syncope, which meant that she could have fainted whenever she exercised. “This isn’t the kind of fainting you’d read about in a Victorian romance novel,” she laughs. Her heart would actually stop beating.
 

Though a lifelong runner, she was terrified to leave the house for a run.
 

After being implanted with a pacemaker in 2001, she says she “no longer lives in fear.” And she’s excited (truly!) to run in her fifth marathon: “It’s going to be a great day.”
 

Two others from the region will be participating in the 10-mile portion of the event.
 

That includes Heidi Owen, a 31-year-old nurse at the Mayo Clinic who suffered from cardiac arrest when she was just 24. Newly engaged at the time, she collapsed outside of a hospital in Albert Lea, and her sister had to perform CPR. “It wasn’t looking good at that point,” she says.
 

Owen was diagnosed with a condition called Long QT Syndrome, a heart rhythm disorder that can cause fast, chaotic heartbeats. In 2004, she was treated with an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) — a stopwatch-sized device that will shock her heart back into rhythm, if needed. Owen says the device gives her tremendous peace-of-mind, particularly while running. A high school and college athlete, she has run two marathons and two half-marathons since receiving her device.
 

After Sunday, she plans to train for a triathlon. Her ICD, she says, “helped me to be normal again.”
 

Finally, it was a hoot interviewing Gary Pauley, a 48-year-old resident of Parker, S.D., who has been treated with a deep brain stimulator for symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease. The pacemaker-like device is implanted in the chest and connected to the brain with two leads or wires that deliver electrical pulses to treat the telltales symptoms of the disease. Your humble blogger has seen this surgery and it is no small feat.
 

When diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2009, “it was a real kick in the shorts,” Pauley says. Prior to receiving the device, he says his hands shook so badly he couldn’t recognize his own signature, or put on a pair of pants while standing up. That largely changed with the implant of the stimulator. “It didn’t fix everything, but [the symptoms] are barely noticeable.”
 

Most importantly, he could run again. An enthusiastic athlete, Pauley really took to running after enlisting in the Army more than 20 years ago. “I was a sprinter in high school and a couch potato in college. In the Army, they made me run a mile the first week and I swear they could have clocked me with a sundial.”
 

Pauley improved over the years, and five months after his surgery to implant the stimulator, he ran a half-marathon. Next on his “physical bucket list:” A triathlon. Only, at age 48, he had to first learn how to swim. “That’s going great,” he reports.


The stimulator doesn’t cure Parkinson’s, but it helped Pauley live his life as an supervisor at an insurance company and the father of two boys. “I was afraid I was going to be a 40-year-old who could no longer work or run — a fat, bald person who sat in the house a lot.”


Even knee surgery seven weeks ago won’t stop him from the 10-miler on Sunday. “No problem,” he says.

Janet Moore covers medical technology for the Star Tribune.

 

 

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