Seven heart surgeries can't slow down Boulder triathlete

Triathlete Brandi Lueken hasn't let seven heart surgeries slow her down
Shes had seven heart surgeries, she's been frozen and put into clinical death for 17 minutes, and she's been given a permanent pacemaker and an artificial vein.

All that has not stopped, but rather inspired 26-year-old Brandi Lueken, who has become one of the top age-group triathletes in the United States.

Four months after her last heart surgery for cardiac dysrhythmia on Dec. 15, 1997, Lueken did a 1,400-mile bike race from St. Louis to Orlando. She followed that up by competing in the 3,000-mile bicycle race, the Race Across America, from Irvine, Calif., to Savannah, Ga.

This July, the 5-foot-4, 126-pound Lueken will be one of the favorites to win her age group (25 to 30) at Ironman Europe. And come October, she will be eyeing a top-five finish in her age group at Ironman Hawaii.

She currently lives in Superior, Colo., outside of Boulder, where she trains.

All of these achievements and high expectations seem unimaginable considering where Lueken was and what she had to overcome.

Flash back nine years: Lueken is working out at East Central College in Union, Mo. She is running three miles. All of a sudden she collapses after finishing the run.

I noticed I was disoriented, having a little problem hearing, she recalled. I noticed that everyone I usually past was passing me. I kept thinking I must be tired, I haven't been training hard enough, and I'm losing my fitness.

"After the race the coach asked us to take our pulse. I took mine and as the coach asked each runner what his or her pulse was, I hesitated to let him know what mine. It was 25 and you add the zero and that's 250 heartbeats-a-minute. That sounded like I was in pretty bad shape."

Lueken didn't know the half of it.

The next day she went to see her family physician, who gave her a Holter monitor, which is like a 24-hour EKG. There were 17 episodes where Lueken's heartbeats were greater than 200 per minute, with most of them occurring between 2 and 4 a.m. Thus it wasn't exercise-induced, it just happened any time.

The diagnosis was supraventricular tachycardia a less-serious version of the condition that forced professional triathlete, Greg Welch to retire from the sport of triathlon.

Two weeks later at the University of St. Louis Hospital, Lueken, then 18, had her first open-heart surgery to reduce her heart rate. It did not work.

That was a scenario that would be played out six more times over the next eight years, as Lueken and doctors looked for solutions.

It was very frustrating to say the least, Lueken said. Each time I would get my hopes up with the anticipated surgery and each time I would be disappointed that there was no improvement.

Finally it was decided that a different procedure would be tried to repair a vein. Her heart, lungs, brain activity, metabolism and circulation had to be stopped in its entirety to replace a pacemaker that her body had rejected and to reconstruct a major vein in her heart (the superior vena cava).

To accomplish this, her body had to be taken to a state of induced hypothermia Lueken was clinically dead for 17 minutes at a temperature of 17 degrees Celsius.

The only thing I remember about the surgery was that, five minutes before, they told me they were going to turn off the cardiac pulmonary bypass machine and lower my body temperature to a point where I'd be clinically dead," Lueken said.

It kind of freaked me out," she said. "Its not the greatest feeling to have someone tell you they're going to kill you to try to help you.

The operation, performed by Dr. Peter Murphy at Missouri Baptist Hospital, was a success and the patient lived.

Two weeks after the surgery I started running again, Lueken said. They told me I could do anything except lift weight with my upper body for three months.

All of a sudden my fitness level has gone beyond anything I could have imagined. I'm more aware of health and I'm making up for lost time.

"During the nine years off I would pass out two or three times a month, my cardiac output was horrible, my blood pressure was horrible. When your heart is beating 250 beats a minute, there's not a lot your body can do for you. It was physically and mentally draining.

(Before the surgery) I was 18 years old and I knew my grandmother could do more than I could do, Lueken said. When it was all over and everything was the way I wanted it to be I knew I had to make up for lost time.

And Lueken has certainly done that.

Lueken currently averages 60 miles a day on her bike, 35 miles a week running and three days a week swimming. She claims the bike as her strongest segment and credits her involvement in competitive gymnastics for almost 10 years.

On the other hand, after successive heart surgeries, swimming has been her hardest feat since it targets the chest muscles that have either been moved or cut.

Lueken earned a degree in chemistry from the University of Missouri, but her experience in the hospital has made her shy away from a career in medicine.

At first I was a pre-med student and was going into cardio thorasic, Lueken said. When I had the first surgery I was focused on a medical career. But after the third or fourth surgery and certainly after the seventh operation, I realized that I don't want to be around an environment that reminds me of where I was.

Lueken applied to the University of Denver graduate school with the desire of going into clinical psychology. However, she says, I'm going to put everything on hold for the next 10 years and focus all my attention and energy on the triathlon.

Lueken is grateful to a lot of people for their support, beginning with her husband, Keith Duguid, and her sponsors.

She currently is the national spokesperson for Polar heart-rate monitors and recently was elected as a member of the Board of Directors for the American Heart Association.

She has been profiled in Triathlete magazine and Cosmopolitan magazine and was the subject of a cover story in the Rocky Mountain Sports Magazine. She has done numerous TV interviews on cable and network stations and has appeared on the Rosie O'Donnell Show.

There are plans for Lueken to make an appearance on the David Letterman Show, where both host and guest can compare scars and talk openly about open-heart surgery and their inspiring comebacks.

Discuss This Article