January 20, 2023 – Channing Muller was 26 when she had her first stroke. A vegetarian for a decade and a recreational runner, it shocked her and her doctors.
“The first one happened in the morning after I did a pub crawl,” says Muller, now 37. “I stepped out of bed and my heart was pounding, I felt tingles all over my body and I lost all color in my face.”
She tried to curl up in a fetal position and attempted to get back into bed, but her heartbeat wouldn’t slow.
“I could breathe but I couldn’t regulate my breathing,” she recalls.
After calling her roommate for help, the two rushed to Georgetown Hospital in Washington, DC, five blocks from her apartment.
“They immediately hooked me up to an EKG machine and gave me aspirin,” says Muller, who now runs his own marketing business in Chattanooga, TN. “As my heart rate slowed, I learned that my heart was beating over 200 beats per minute during my 45-minute heart attack.”
After further tests, she was airlifted to the Cardiac Care Unit at Washington Hospital Center, also in Washington, DC, where she underwent even more tests. It was there that her doctors discovered that she had a blockage in the left anterior descending artery (LAD), otherwise known as the “widowmaker” because this blockage stops all blood flow to the left side of the heart.
“Yet, because of my age, I was sent home with medication instead of a stent,” she says. “I was told to go to cardiac rehab and that I would be monitored from there.”
A month later, she was back at work and feeling stressed when she began to feel severe tightness in her chest.
“I had nitroglycerin tablets with me, but after taking the second one I knew I had to go to the hospital because my heartbeat wasn’t slowing down,” she says.
By the time she arrived at the hospital, she had a complete heart attack and, after doctors inserted a catheter into her heart, learned that the artery was 95% blocked.
At that point, there was no choice but to place a stent and start cardiac rehabilitation again.
For Muller, those two things were life changing in every way.
“Cardiac rehab was the best thing I’ve ever done for myself because it taught me to believe that my body was not going to let me down,” she says. “It also helped my mental state. Here I was a runner, vegetarian and weight appropriate and it still happened. I needed to accept that, and cardiac rehab helped me.
Within a year, the damage from the heart attack had healed, thanks to her age and her hard work in rehab.
“Unless you know I’m a person living with this, you would never know I had issues,” she says.
Even better, she resumed her exercise routine and ran her first half marathon in 2019. In December 2021, she celebrated her 10th anniversary of heart health by running her first of 12 marathons (she plans two more in the coming months). She didn’t lose sight of the fact that she was going to run 26.2 miles and that she was 26 when she had her heart attack.
“What I want people, especially women, to know is that you have to stand up for yourself,” says Muller, who serves on the boards of the American Heart Association and Go Red For Women. “The biggest thing that worries us is that we don’t want to make a fuss or think it’s a panic attack or you’re stressed. Make some noise.
She also urges us all to know the difference between a panic attack and a heart attack.
“For women, they feel very similar,” she says. “The difference is that if you have a panic attack and you focus on a point on the wall and take a deep breath, you will be able to do it and your heart rate will slow down. A heart attack does not stop. You cannot not concentrate on getting out of it. It has to run its course.”
These days, Muller sees her cardiologist every year and takes four cholesterol medications, a baby aspirin and blood pressure medication every day.
Muller says her heart attacks changed her forever.
“I strongly believe that we are the product of our experiences and how we deal with them,” she says. “Having that was the worst experience, but I managed to get through it and learned to become more in tune with my body.”
It also pushed her to dedicate her life to physical challenges.
“Who knows if I would be so dedicated to my marathons if I hadn’t already proven that I could go through something so scary,” she says. “I was forced to become a much stronger person, so here I am!”