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New heart pacemaker technology takes Julia off the sidelines and on the path to completing 10 marathons and an Ironman race

For much of Julia Engel’s life, the thought of running a marathon – or even running through her own neighborhood – had been an unattainable dream.

Born with a hole in one of her heart valves, she’d suffered blackout spells as a child. Then in high school, she was diagnosed with abnormal heart rhythms caused by a problem with her heart’s natural pacemaker. An irregular heartbeat that was often dangerously slow meant many normal activities were off limits.

“My friends were all running track and playing sports,” says Julia, now 53. “I was taking score on the sidelines.”

Even when she got her first implanted pacemaker at age 17, she couldn’t exert herself too much for fear her heart wouldn’t be able to keep up. Her pacemaker couldn’t increase beyond a pre-set speed – meaning she couldn’t do many of the things that make a normal heart to beat faster.

“My pacemaker kept my heart beating at 70 beats per minute – and that’s all it would do,” says Julia. “I wasn’t passing out anymore, but I wasn’t super active, either.”

Back in Action

Over the years, she got used to a lifestyle of limited activity. Then Julia came to Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute – and for the first time, she had hope that her future didn’t have to be like her past.

“The technology of pacemakers has improved over the years,” says Paul Colavita, MD, president of Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute and Julia’s cardiologist. “So we implanted a dual sensor, and this allowed us to pace her heart all the way up to 180 beats a minute as necessary for her activity level.”

For the first time in her life, Julia had the freedom to be as active as she’d always wanted. “I started running. I started cycling and swimming,” she says. “And I started training for marathons and triathlons.”

Soon, she’d completed her first marathon – and that was just the start of a new life. From traditional marathons to ultramarathons to triathlons, Julia kept shooting past expectations of what she’d thought she could do.

Winning the Race

After building up her endurance with a number of competitions, Julia was ready for the ultimate test: an Ironman Triathlon. A grueling long-distance race, the Ironman Triathlon is made up of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a full 26.2-mile marathon run – with no break in between legs.

As she prepared for the event, she found an unconventional training partner in her Sanger care team. “They’d put me on a treadmill so they could tweak my pacemaker to my personal settings,” says Julia. “They wanted to make sure nothing stopped me from doing what I’d set out to do.”

When the big day came, she had two goals: to finish the race in 14 hours and not to have to visit the medical tent. She accomplished them both.

“After finishing the Ironman, I was so emotional,” Julia remembers. “I just never thought that was something I’d be able to do.”

These days, Julia loves keeping an active lifestyle and raising money for kids growing up with heart conditions. She says she’s grateful to Sanger for giving her what she’d always wanted: the chance to live a normal life.

“I can run. I can take my dog out. I can go biking in the mountains with my husband and my friends,” she says. “That means everything to me.”

A healthy heart lets you stay focused on doing what you love.  Learn how Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute can help you keep your heart healthy.