Anne Kirchmier of Fredericksburg says her life is an amazing experience that gets bigger and better every day. Hers is a story of passion, perseverance and triumph.
Fourteen months ago, the former marathon runner received a heart transplant at the University of Virginia Health System. The surgery was the culmination of an 11-year progressive illness that confounded doctors at leading institutions around the country and brought Kirchmier to the brink of death.
Kirchmier first became ill in 1996, experiencing drastic fatigue that developed suddenly. At the time, the married mother of three was running marathons and thought she may have over-trained. “Sometimes, while running, I could see my chest moving because my heart was beating so fast,” Kirchmier recalls.
She spent the next three years consulting with cardiologists and other medical specialists, being told by some that there was nothing wrong with her. She took stress tests and wore Holter monitors. She underwent catheter ablation, took medication and had a defibrillator implanted in her chest. Although she was feeling sicker and sicker, doctors could not agree on a diagnosis and told her it was okay to keep running.
In late 1999, she ran a marathon in Texas, which qualified her to run in the Boston Marathon. “I stopped seven times during the race because my heart was beating so fast. I don’t know how I finished without dying,” Kirchmier says.
More medical tests ensued. Ultimately, doctors confirmed that she had arrhythmogenic right ventricular dysplasia (ARVD), a rare, often-inherited condition that gradually converts healthy heart muscle into scar tissue and fat and causes the heart to beat abnormally. Later, her sister was diagnosed with the condition, as well.
ARVD is a known cause of sudden cardiac death among high-performance athletes, and its symptoms are usually induced by exercise. “Doctors told me that my strong heart kept me alive and enabled me to endure the fast rhythms I was experiencing,” notes Kirchmier.
As years passed, her condition deteriorated into heart failure. She couldn’t hold up her arms to wash her hair, couldn’t speak without breathing hard and was too weak to walk. “I was gray, pale and ill. I knew I was dying,” she says. The doctors treating her at the time were unwilling to place her on the waiting list for a heart transplant.
By then, she had found a champion in Dr. John Armitage, a cardiothoracic surgeon affiliated with Mary Washington Hospital in Fredericksburg who sent her to UVA for evaluation. Dr. James Bergin, a cardiologist and medical director of the health system’s Heart Failure/Cardiac Transplantation Program, took over Kirchmier’s care. After reviewing her records and examining her, Dr. Bergin and his team agreed to add her to the transplant list.
“Thirty-three days later, my heart came. I was called in the middle of the night,” Kirchmier says.
“We were all excited when a suitable organ became available for Anne,” notes Dr. Bergin. “A team of UVA cardiac surgeons under the direction of Dr. Gorav Ailawadi flew more than 500 miles to evaluate the donor’s heart and determine if it was a good match for her. At the end of the operation, her new heart worked beautifully.”
Even though she has no information about her donor, Kirchmier has named her heart, Amy. “Every day, I thank the person who gave me this new heart and promise to take the best care of her,” she says.
With Amy as her partner, the 50 year-old Kirchmier has resumed running. “It’s a deep passion for me,” she explains. Her first race was the Carl Tribastone Memorial Walk/Run, a 5K event in Charlottesville for the transplant community. Happily, she finished but reports her speed was less than “blazing.”
In August, her family accompanied her to Pittsburgh, where she competed in the 2008 U.S. Transplant Games. Despite back problems and little training, she ran fast enough to set new national records for the Transplant Games in the 800 meter and 1500 meter races. “Amy and I did it,” she exclaims.
Looking ahead, Kirchmier is preparing for the 2009 World Transplant Games in Gold Coast, Australia. She has started volunteering with LifeNet, an organ procurement organization, and hopes to become a mentor to other transplant patients. “My journey now is about telling others to never give up hope and never lose sight of getting well,” she says.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette video interview with Anne Kirchmier at the 2008 U.S. Transplant Games: