FRIDAY, Feb. 10, 2023 (American Heart Association News) -- Megan Washington finished running a muggy mile outside the Orlando, Florida, warehouse where she attended professional wrestling school, and found herself abnormally out of breath and exhausted.
When the group went to do squats and jumping jacks, Megan sat on a couch with her eyes closed. She felt dizzy and was still struggling to breathe. Realizing something was wrong with the 21-year-old, the owner of the school told her, "You have to go to the hospital."
Megan figured her breathing problem stemmed from pairing her asthma with Orlando's July humidity. Still, she went to the emergency room. Walking in, she collapsed to the floor. Her legs felt like jelly, unable to keep her upright.
Five hours later, she was finally treated. By then, her oxygen levels were OK; it wasn't asthma. However, her pulse was still high, registering 119 beats per minute. The doctor ordered an electrocardiogram, or EKG, expecting the results would confirm she was healthy enough to go home.
Instead, the doctor burst into her room with the printout. "You can't leave," he said, adding that climbing stairs could send her into cardiac arrest.
Doctors soon discovered an extra electrical pathway in Megan's heart, which is a problem because it can lead to a rapid heartbeat. The condition is known as Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome.
She was admitted to the hospital. It was 2 a.m. when she called her parents, Mary and Michael Washington, who live three hours away. "I drove up there in a cloud," Mary said.
A cardiologist explained that Megan needed an ablation, a procedure that would create scar tissue in the heart to block the faulty electrical signals and stabilize her heart rhythm. The next available appointment was in November, four months away. Not sure what else to do, she took it, then began the long wait.
"I was afraid of everything and to do anything," Megan said. "I was so scared to leave my apartment."
A university student living in Tampa at the time, she hunkered down at home and did schoolwork. She left her part-time retail job and stopped exercising. She watched television and ate ramen noodles. She followed doctors' orders not to get her heart racing.
"Before, I enjoyed working out and being on a treadmill," she said. "But I thought I couldn't do that anymore. I was just sitting around and waiting."
Weeks later, Megan got a call from the hospital. Another patient canceled their procedure. She would have her ablation at the end of August.
The procedure was such a success that the doctor said she could return to working out the following week. She returned to wrestling, reviving her bid to make a career of it.
But her chest burned. A week later, realizing she needed more time for her body to heal, she stopped wrestling.
Then she gave up exercising entirely – for eight years.
"I was so afraid something terrible was going to happen," she said.
Meanwhile, she researched her condition but found little information. She started blogging with the hope of sharing her story and connecting with others with Wolff-Parkinson-White.
For years, on her "Heartiversary" – the anniversary of her heart procedure – Megan made and posted a YouTube video. One year, someone commented they were just diagnosed and found comfort in knowing she was doing OK.
She found the confidence to trust her body enough to try exercising again.
Living with her parents, she was home alone one day when she walked into the room where they keep a treadmill. "I decided, I'm just going to do it – to face my fears."
She started out slowly, walking. Then she ran three-fourths of a mile.
"I was so proud of myself," she said. "I took that first step and conquered my fears."
Gradually, Megan ran farther. Then she went back to the gym. Now, another eight years later, she walks and runs on the treadmill. Recently, she bought a home exercise bike. She describes her anxiety these days as "manageable."
As for the career in wrestling, "I'm way too old for that now," said the 37-year-old.
While she's stopped making her annual video, she still celebrates her "Heartiversary" with a social media post about her condition and the care she received. She volunteers with the American Heart Association, speaking about mental health and women's heart health. She participates in AHA Heart Walks with her parents and fiancé, and has lobbied for a Florida bill that would require telephone CPR training for all 911 dispatchers.
She has competed in pageants, and in 2019, was the first runner-up for Florida in the Ms. United States pageant. Her platform was heart health.
She has earned a master's in communication, has her own social media marketing company, and has taught as an adjunct professor. She's also balancing wedding planning with maintaining a lifestyle of exercise and healthy eating.
"She's come a very long way," Mary said. "She's doing amazing things. She believes in educating people. She's a beautiful person inside and out."
Megan is thankful each day for how things have turned out.
"I didn't become a statistic," she said. "I was very lucky."
American Heart Association News covers heart and brain health. Not all views expressed in this story reflect the official position of the American Heart Association. Copyright is owned or held by the American Heart Association, Inc., and all rights are reserved. If you have questions or comments about this story, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Deborah Lynn Blumberg, American Heart Association News