Three decades ago, when Jamie Heft of Monroeton was 18 months old, she had open heart surgery to help correct a congenital heart defect.
Surgeons used a synthetic patch to repair a hole between the two lower ventricles of her heart, and also widened her pulmonary heart valve.
But the surgery only partially corrected the problem.
As a child growing up in Towanda, Heft would get winded easily and doctors told her not to play sports.
“I was really frustrated as a kid, because I could not do what the other kids were doing,” Heft recalls. “I could not play sports, or run, or keep up with them.”
When she was 16, a cardiologist told her that she was not going to have a normal life span, and that she shouldn’t have children, due to her heart condition.
She would just have to accept those limitations, the heart specialist told her.
But being told she couldn’t do certain things made her want to do them even more, Heft said.
When she was a sophomore at Towanda High, she joined the school’s majorette squad. At the time, the majorettes were not under PIAA regulations, so she didn’t need to undergo a physical to join the team.
Her advisors were aware that she had a heart condition, and there was an arrangement made where she could stop and take a break at any time, if she needed to.
“It was the first time that I was able to be in a sport-like activity,” Heft recalls. “It meant so much to me, and I enjoyed it so much.”
When she told her cardiologist that she had been participating in the majorette program, “he was OK with it, because I was able to take breaks,” Heft said.
In her senior year at Towanda High, her cardiologist finally agreed to let her join the school’s girls tennis team, something she had asked his permission to do since she was a sophomore.
“I felt it was a sport I could handle from an endurance level,” Heft said, adding that tennis does not require continual movement and that there are breaks built into the game.
“I loved it (being on the tennis team),” Heft recalls. “I wasn’t very good. It was exciting to be part of a team.”
At age 20, against her doctor’s advice, Heft had a child.
Besides the taxing effect the pregnancy would have on her heart, doctors had also told Heft that she would have a 50 percent chance of having a child with a heart defect. It would not necessarily be a serious heart defect, her doctors told her. It could be anything from a heart murmur, which is pretty common, to something more serious.
But when her son, Kolton, was born, he had absolutely nothing wrong with his heart, and he grew into a very healthy young boy. However, being pregnant may have hurt her heart, she said.
“That’s probably when I started to really wear things out,” she recalls. “It (being pregnant) is not easy (on the heart). It’s doing double duty. It’s taking care of you and your fetus.”
Things came to a head when Kolton was 4 years old. She had shortness of breath at the time, and could barely breathe after climbing a set of stairs.
She had difficulty focusing and became extremely exhausted at times.
“I thought at the time that I was just doing too much,” Heft recalls. “I was working full-time and I was taking college classes, and I had a small child.”
After speaking to several doctors, she went to see Hershey Medical Center cardiologist William Davidson for the first time, who told her that she needed to have another open heart surgery in order to replace her pulmonary heart valve, and that the surgery should be done soon.
 
Unexpected treatment
Neither Jamie Heft, nor her husband of less than a year, James Heft, said they were expecting her to have to undergo heart surgery again.
“It scared the daylights out of me, to say the least,” James Heft said. “Being her husband and her rock, I knew I had to be strong. I knew I (needed to be) strong so that she wouldn’t get scared.”
During the surgery, which took place in March 2005 at Hershey Medical Center, doctors replaced her pulmonary heart valve with a heart valve from a cow, Jamie Heft said.
After five days in the hospital, Jamie Heft returned home.
“I remember feeling so incredibly energized and so youthful,” she recalls. “I could breathe better. I could climb a flight of stairs without getting winded. Everything (all physical activity) seemed so much easier.”
“My next question (for Dr. Davidson) was, ‘Can I have another baby?’,” Heft recalls.
Even though it was only a year after her heart surgery, Davidson gave her permission to have another baby, although both she and her doctor knew there was the risk that she would pass on a heart defect to her child.
Davidson “assured me that I (now) had a normally functioning heart, and that I could handle a pregnancy safely,” Jamie Heft said.
Heft’s daughter, Kiernyn, was born on Nov. 1, 2006.
Kiernyn was born with a heart murmur, although it was an “innocent” one, Jamie Heft said.
After examining Kiernyn for three years, doctors said that Kiernyn would only need follow-up care if she developed symptoms such as difficulty breathing or chest pains, according to Jamie Heft.
However, Kiernyn has not developed any problems at all related to her heart murmur, Jamie Heft said.
She said that both her children lead very active lifestyles by participating in activities such as dance at the Endless Mountains Dance Center, soccer and T-ball.
As for Jamie Heft, her level of physical activity has increased dramatically since the 2005 heart surgery. She started to go for walks within a couple of weeks after the surgery.
“When that got easier, I started to walk faster,” she recalls. “When that got easier, I started to walk farther. When that got easier, I started to think about starting to run.”
She began to run on her own.
In late 2011, when she asked her cardiologist’s permission to participate in a competitive 5K, he reminded her that she had a normally functioning heart, and told her that as long as she felt comfortable, she could run the race.
Jamie Heft ran her first 5K race, the Abuse & Rape Crisis Center’s 5K run in Towanda in March 2012.
“I was crying so hard. I was so emotional” after crossing the finish line, she said.
She ran seven more 5K runs in 2012.
So far in 2013, she has run four 5K races, and has several more scheduled for this year.
“I may do double the number of races this year than last year,” she says.
“I am not fast,” she said of her performances in the races. “I am not good.”
She said she runs “against herself,” trying to meet personal goals.
Her best time last year in a 5K run was 33 minutes, 23 seconds. By contrast, the top female finisher in her age group in a 5K race might finish “in the low- to mid- 20s,” she said.
 
Reasons to run
“I participate in 5K runs because I can,” she says. “This is the first time I have ever been able to run and not have difficulty breathing or have chest pains. It’s exciting to do what others can do.”
“Each race is an opportunity to improve my time and improve my endurance in some way, and I’m always enjoying myself,” she says. “Being able to finish the event is an accomplishment to me.”
While her 2005 surgery opened the door for physical activity, it is not the end of the line for her heart treatment.
The heart value that she received in 2005 was only expected to last seven to 15 years, and it has already lasted eight years, she said.
Eventually she will have to have open heart surgery to install a new pulmonary valve, she said. Fortunately, there is a relatively new, less invasive procedure available, where a piece of cow’s jugular, or throat tube, is inserted into the pulmonary valve to reinforce it and extend the valve’s life another 7 to 15 years, she said.
The jugular piece is delivered to the heart using a catheter that travels through a patient’s blood vessels, she said.
Jamie Heft said she has been told that she is a good candidate for the catheterization procedure, which she said can be repeated every 7 to 15 years for a total of about three times.
Therefore, she said, she might be in her mid-60s before she will need another open heart surgery to replace her pulmonary valve.
The catheterization procedure will only require a hospital stay of one day, she said.
Because of the availability of the catheterization procedure, her cardiologist told her in January that she can now expect to have a normal lifespan, Jamie Heft said.
“That was the most exciting news my family has ever received,” she said.
In the past, doctors had been much more pessimistic about her lifespan.
When she was a very young child, a doctor had told her parents that she might not live past age 5. Later, they were told that she might die as a teenager.
Partly to celebrate her prognosis for a normal lifespan, Jamie Heft is organizing a 5K run in Towanda, called the Racing Heart 5K Walk/Run. The run will raise funds for the Adult Congenital Heart Association and the Children’s Heart Foundation.
The Racing Heart 5K will take place on June 1, with registration from 8 a.m. to 8:45 a.m. Runners will start at 9 a.m. and walkers will start at 9:15 a.m.
The staging area for the race will be the Bradford County Courthouse’s parking lot, which is located at the rear of the building.
For more information on the race, go to the race’s Facebook page or email Jamie Heft at RacingHeart5K@yahoo.com.
James Loewenstein can be reached at (570) 265-1633; or email: jloewenstein@thedailyreview.com