A matter of the HEART Saturday’s walk to draw thousands

Eli Roberts, 7, of West Ashley, tries to get his little brother, 17-month-old Noah, to stand still for a photo with the American Heart Association’s mascot before last year’s Lowcountry Heart Walk. Noah was a “Little Heart” survivor after he underwent surgery when he was just 10 years old.

On Saturday, more than 5,000 people will unite in downtown Charleston for a cause that affects everyone: our hearts.

For the 16th year in Charleston, the American Heart Association’s annual Lowcountry Heart Walk will bring together families of infants born with heart defects, stroke and heart attack survivors, and everyone in between, to celebrate and raise money for more research on heart defects and disease.

Jim Newsome, this year’s Heart Walk chairman, reiterated the reach that heart disease continues to have in the United States.

“Heart disease kills more people annually than the next five causes of death combined. This is a shocking statistic,” says Newsome, president and CEO of South Carolina Ports Authority.

“By holding fundraising events like this, the American Heart Association is keeping its mission on the forefront: to fight cardiovascular disease and stroke.”

Last year, 5,200 people raised $650,000. This year, the association hopes to raise $775,000.

Newsome adds that the event also underscores the point that “it is never too late to start down a healthier path.”

“Our hope is that the Lowcountry Heart Walk will help jump-start a culture of healthy living among participants and increase passion for supporting the lifesaving work of the American Heart Association.”

Among the thousands will be teams honoring a 2-year-old girl, a 53-year-old and 64-year-old. For their stories, go to Pages D2 and D3.

Clayton Thornton, 53, says triathlon, a sport that he cannot participate in for now, saved his life.

Years after Thornton ruptured discs in his back, he gained weight, up to 210 pounds on his 5-foot-8 frame, and was out of shape, despite a regimen of weight lifting.

In 2006, friend and avid local triathlete Neil Jacobs convinced him to try to participate in the Charleston Sprint Triathlon.

Thornton, who was 45 at the time, did and considered the 1-hour, 52-minute finish “an abject failure.” But instead of being “one-and-done,” the poor showing had the opposite effect.

“I got bitten by the triathlon bug,” says Thornton, who works as a financial advisor with Dixon Hughes Goodman Wealth Advisors.

He started a training regimen and entering races, but in August 2007, he got severely nauseated during a training session.

“I went home and just felt puny. Sunday (the next day), I was totally lethargic. Monday. I came into work with no energy,” recalls Thornton.

The following night, he woke up with a sore throat and “the voice of God in my head telling me to go to the doctor.”

Initially, the staff found nothing wrong with him, then a doctor and fellow triathlete suggested doing a blood enzyme test on Thornton.

Good thing. The test picked up what had happened: a heart attack. He was whisked off to Roper St. Francis Hospital where Dr. Kenneth Hangar, another triathlete, performed a heart catheterization.

The news was worse: five heart artery blockages, including a 100 percent blockage of the infamous left anterior descending artery, aka the “widow maker.” Thornton had only a five percent chance of surviving the night.

He had to have surgery, ASAP, and the staff started prepping him. The surgery took nine hours.

When the surgeons opened up Thornton’s chest, they found a “spider web of collateral veins and arteries” around his heart, likely the result of Thornton’s new-found passion for cardiovascular exercises. Those collateral passages likely saved his life.

After his recovery, Thornton had a new lease on life and in 2008 was back on the triathlon circuit.

In 2011, he even completed the Ironman Florida triathlon, which includes a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike, and a 26.2-mile swim, in 13 hours, 44 minutes.

He had so much fun that last year he and friends signed up to do this year’s Ironman Florida again, but then trouble came back in January.

Thornton, who weighed 160 pounds, had super blood pressure of a 95/70 and a resting pulse rate of 40, wasn’t feeling good. His blood pressure had shot up to 180/150 and was on the verge of “red lining.”

Doctors found out he had atrial fibrillation and later that four of his six bypasses had collapsed. His fitness level was actually masking the severity of the situation.

This time, recovery came by putting an ICD, or implantable cardioverter defibrillator, in Thornton’s chest. The small device uses electrical pulses or shocks to help control life-threatening arrhythmias, especially those that can cause heart attacks.

Thornton is allowed to swim and run at moderate but not intense pace, but his doctors have urged him to wait before bicycling outside because of the risk of the ICD kicking in and causing a blackout or accident.

Thornton survives today only because of advances in cardiovascular medicine. His father died of a heart attack at 64. His grandfather died of one at 52. And without modern medicine, Thornton likely would have lowered his family’s life expectancy even more.

On Saturday, Thornton will join others from Dixon Hughes Goodman for the Heart Walk, as he plans to do the rest of his life.

“I think that this (heart disease) can be beat. For me, I was checking out at 46, so I look at every day as a brand new day,” says Thornton, urging people to eat a low-fat, lean-protein diet, to exercise, to listen to doctors and to find some spiritual path or awakening.

“To me, every day is a blessing.”

According to doctors, had Stephanie and Adam Lee’s first child been born 10 years ago, she likely would not have survived.

Had she been born five years ago, she likely would have a slim chance of surviving.

But today, thanks to advances in congenital heart defects, the procedure to save her life is almost considered routine, with a series of three open-heart surgeries, and safe.

Abigail Grace Lee was born on Feb. 11, 2011, with hypoplastic left heart syndrome, a complex and rare heart defect in which the left side of the heart is critically underdeveloped. Because the left side can’t effectively pump blood to the body, the right side must pump blood to both lungs and the rest of the body.

The Lees were prepared. The defect had been detected at Stephanie’s mid-term ultrasound appointment. But as with any young, first-time parents, it was both shocking and sobering for the parents, who are now 28.

“The first thing we did was call my parents,” says Adam. “You explain it on the phone and you can’t believe what you’re saying.”

After delivery at the Medical University of South Carolina, Abigail was whisked into an incubator at the Pediatric Cardiac Intensive Care Unit. The Lees got to see her for “a brief second.” Their journey to repair her heart had started.

The first stop was the first of three open-heart surgeries, the Norwood Procedure, on day five of Abigail’s young life. Post surgery, as is routine, her chest was left open for three days because of the propensity for infants to succumb to swelling afterward.

“It’s something to walk in there (to PCICU) and see your daughter’s little heart pumping away,” says Adam.

Among the tribulations to follow was reflux and problems with feeding, which are common. Photos of Abigail show a network of tubes coming in and out of her body.

On Aug. 22, 2011, Abigail was back at MUSC for her second surgery, a bi-directional Glenn operation, and was dealt a second obstacle, a fluid leak into her chest and lungs.

But since recovery from that, Abigail has started to live a rather normal toddler life, full of energy and actually above average in body weight. The only precaution, for now, is getting an extra flu shot because of a somewhat compromised immune system.

The Lees have one more surgery to go, the Fontan Operation, which is set for April 2014, well after flu season as subsided.

And while the past two years haven’t been easy, the Lees are optimistic.

On Saturday, Abigail will be honored as one of the Heart Walk’s “Lil Hearts” and the Lees will be joined by friends in their first-ever Heart Walk.

Lana Nelson, 64, is able to hug and kiss her first grandchild, Grayson, who is now 5 months old, because of advances in treating severe heart attacks.

Life changed for Nelson on July 14, 2011, when she started her drive from Givhans to her job as an X-ray technician at South Carolina Sports Medicine in North Charleston.

She had been having indigestion, one of the more common symptoms for women having heart attacks, for a couple of days and was popping antacids. On her drive, she started feeling worse and started perspiring profusely.

“I wondered if I had the flu,” says Nelson, who had been working in health care for four decades. “I looked for a police officer on my way, but of course, on this day, none could be found.”

Finally, she got to work and a colleague immediately noticed that Nelson looked in dire shape. An ambulance was called. After she was put in, Nelson had a heart attack. She had two more before arriving to the emergency room at nearby Trident Medical Center.

Her left anterior descending artery, or “widow maker,” was 100 percent blocked. Efforts to put in a stint only result in a heart attack.

The last-ditch effort to save Nelson was to put her on an ECMO, or extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, machine. The machine is designed to provide oxygen to patients whose heart and lungs are so severely diseased or damage that they can no longer serve their function. She was later transferred to MUSC.

But it carried risks, too, because of the need to thin the blood and the relative lack of oxygen provided to the extremities, notably the feet and hands. Eventually, organs could start to fail and limbs die.

Her daughter, local media consultant Ryan Nelson Goldwater, says the doctors told her and her family that the ECMO machine was “a last-ditch effort and that she would probably die.”

“When you know that----- death is facing you, you say ‘yes’ (to risks) because it was either do something or nothing,” says Goldwater.

Lana Nelson was put on permanent dialysis and quickly shot up to No. 1 on the heart-transplant list for South Carolina.

But Nelson recovered and seven weeks later she moved into the Goldwater’s home to begin a long, arduous recovery, that featured other challenges.

Tops among them was a festering pressure sore on the back of her foot that led to an amputation of her left lower leg the day before Thanksgiving in 2011.

And the amputation led to complications, notably infections. Life didn’t return to some sense of normalcy until the spring of this year.

“It was a very trying time,” admits Lana, holding her new grandchild, Grayson.

But on Saturday, Lana will walk on Team Lana in the Heart Walk, using Grayson’s stroller for balance, if needed. The team started in 2011, skipped last because Ryan was pregnant, and will return with about 15 team members this year.

“I’m really looking forward to it. I was really down when I couldn’t make it the first time in 2011. And last year, I wasn’t as well as I am now. I love Team Lana. They’ve done so much for me.”

Reach David Quick at 937-5516 or dquick@postand courier.com.