Jan. 20, 2023 -- Channing Muller was 26 years old when she had her first attack. A vegetarian for a decade and a recreational runner, this shocked both her and her doctors.
“The first one happened the morning after I did a bar crawl,” Muller, now 37, says. “I took one step out of bed and my heart was racing, I was tingly all across my body and lost all the color in my face.”
She tried to curl up into fetal position and attempted to get back in bed, but her heart rate wouldn't slow down.
“I could breathe but I couldn't regulate my breath,” she recalls.
After calling her roommate for help, the two rushed to Georgetown Hospital in Washington, D.C., five blocks from her apartment.
“They immediately connected me to an EKG machine and gave me aspirin,” says Muller, who now runs her own marketing firm in Chattanooga, TN. “By the time my heart rate slowed down, I learned my heart was doing over 200 beats a minute during my 45-minute heart attack.”
After more testing, she was airlifted to the cardiac care unit at Washington Hospital Center, also in Washington, D.C., where she had even more testing. That's where her doctors discovered she had a blockage in the left anterior descending artery (LAD), otherwise known as "widow-maker" as this blockage stops all blood flow to the left side of the heart.
“Still, because of my age I was sent home with medicinal therapy instead of a stent,” she says. “I was told to go to cardiac rehab and that I'd be monitored from there.”
A month later, she was back at work and feeling stressed when she began feeling serious tightness in her chest.
“I had nitroglycerin tablets with me but, after I took the second one, I knew I needed to go to the hospital because my heart rate wasn't slowing down,” she says.
By the time she arrived at the hospital she was having a full-on 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 begin cardiac rehab again.
For Muller, these two things were life-changing in every way.
“Cardiac rehab was the best thing I did for myself because it taught me to trust that my body wasn't going to give out on me again,” she says. “It also helped my mental state. Here I was a runner, a vegetarian, and at an appropriate weight and still this happened. I needed to come to terms with this, and cardiac rehab helped.”
Within a year, the damage caused by the heart attack had healed, thanks to her age and hard work in rehab.
“Unless you know I'm a person living with this, you'd never know I had any issues,” she says.
Best of all, she returned to her exercise regimen and ran her first half-marathon in 2019. In December 2021, she marked her 10-year anniversary of heart health by running her first marathon. She's since run several more. Not lost on her was the fact that she was going to run 26.2 miles and was 26 when she had her heart attack.
“What I want people, women especially, to know is that you have to advocate for yourself,” says Muller, who sits on the American Heart Association and Go Red For Women boards. “The biggest thing we worry about is that we don't want to make a fuss or that we think it's an anxiety attack or you're stressed. Make the fuss.”
She also urges all of us 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're having a panic attack and focus on a spot on wall and take deep breaths, you will be able to and your heart rate will slow. A heart attack doesn't stop. You cannot focus your way out of it. It has to run its course.”
These days, Muller sees her cardiologist annually and takes four cholesterol medications, a baby aspirin, and blood pressure medication every day.
Muller says her heart attacks have forever changed her.
“I strongly believe that we are a product of our experiences and how we handle them,” she says. “Having this was the worst experience, but I managed to get through it and I learned how 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 this dedicated to my marathons if I hadn't already proven I could get through something this scary,” she says. “I was forced to become a much stronger person, so here I am!”