Flatline to Finish Line

A patient’s feat to inspire heart patients

In March 2010, Ellen Charnley underwent open-heart surgery at Cleveland Clinic to fix six holes in her heart from a severe congenital heart defect that went undetected until age 41. Eight months after surgery, she crossed the finish line in her first-ever Ironman triathalon. That’s 2.4 miles of swimming, 112 miles of biking and a 26.2 mile race.

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One and done?

In 2011, Ellen published a memoir about her experience.  “I thought my story was over, but I think it is just beginning,” Ellen says of her involvement as one of the directors of IronHeart, a charitable organization that inspires others and raises awareness for cardiac issues. When IronHeart founder, David Watkins, asked Ellen if she would consider doing another Ironman, she wasn’t sure. “I thought I was one and done,” she says of her post-surgery feat.

“Our goal is to inspire others to lead a heart healthy lifestyle.”

HEART: Flatline to Finish Line

But when the idea was presented to train with other cardiac patients and film the experience for a documentary movie, Ellen changed her mind. “I thought that was pretty powerful stuff,” she says. Ellen, David and six other athletes with heart conditions—every one of them had undergone at least one open-heart surgery—began to train and record their experiences. “It has become very much a project of passion,” Ellen says.

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Of course, Ironman training is not “regular” exercise by any means. And when one of the cast members died from a heart-related incident and never made it to the starting line, Ellen and team began to seriously evaluate the message they were sending out through this project.

Ellen Charnley

Ellen Charnley and Cleveland Clinic’s Heather Gornik, MD

“The movie took on a new mission,” she says. “No longer were we gung-ho on doing the Ironman at all cost. We became more mindful and more careful about the message we wanted to portray. Our goal is to inspire others to lead a heart healthy lifestyle and encourage folks to get their hearts checked out by a physician. Ultimately we hope to save lives.”

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Ellen’s last Ironman

Meanwhile, Ellen continues to be in good health. Though, the right side of her heart remains enlarged. “I’ll always be a patient,” Ellen says. “That is a tough concept to deal with mentally because I’m such a type-A driven person. But I’m starting to understand that and respect that. And I have to say, that was the last Ironman I’ll do.”

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