“Electric lady” Kristina Kentigian is grateful for more time

Kristina Kentigian of Westbrook was 33, newly married and singing backup for local acts Spose and Kenya Hall when the thing she’d been warned of all her life started happening.

“I had some gigs, and I could tell as I was singing that I was losing breath and getting dizzy,” Kentigian says. It was, she knew, a sign of heart failure.

This had happened before. In elementary school, Kentigian passed out during physical fitness testing and was eventually diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a congenital heart defect. So she couldn’t play sports for fear that she would overexert herself, but other than that, she had a normal childhood, she says.

“Sometimes I became dizzy or short of breath. But it wasn’t until 2013 that it took a turn,” Kentigian says. “My cardiologist said my heart was struggling to keep to pace. It was dropping beats.”

Kristina Kentigian shows off the scar over her heart, the aftermath of having a defibrillator installed. Photo by Lauryn Hottinger

A pacemaker was the likely remedy, but Kentigian wanted to try a change in medication first. Meanwhile, her attention was on her father, Martin Kentigian, who had been diagnosed with an ear infection and then, in a sudden turn, lung cancer.

“He went to the emergency room at Mercy Hospital, and they told us he had three weeks to live,” Kentigian says. “At that very same time, I started feeling faint and like I was going to pass out. My sister was looking at me and could tell my face had gone completely white and my lips were turning blue.”

Kentigian was already in an emergency room, but her heart team was at Maine Medical Center. Kristina’s husband drove her those few miles.

“I remember in the car ride feeling like I wasn’t going to make it to the ER,” Kentigian says. “What was going through my mind was my dad dying and if I died right then, what would that do to my family?”

By the time she arrived at Maine Med, her heart was beating at only half the normal capacity.

“My heart was stopping for seconds at a time,” Kentigian says. “It was failing me.”

She remembers being in the intensive care unit and blacking out repeatedly, terrified that each time would be her last. An emergency pacemaker was inserted in her neck.

I’m super-proud of my scar, because it shows what I’ve been through and survived.

“It’s just wires hovering until they can place a pacemaker in the heart,” Kentigian says. “My dad was going into hospice right then, and I felt like my time with him was getting robbed the longer I was in the hospital.”

One day later, she had a “permanent” pacemaker installed and within a few days was able to be at her father’s bedside.

On her second visit with her father at the hospice, she got the news that her maternal grandfather, Ken Whitney, was entering the same facility. “His cancer had taken a sudden turn. We thought he had six months,” Kentigian says. “It was strange, because we had both sides of our family there, while I was also dealing with a little post-traumatic stress from my situation.”

That Christmas was spent at hospice—where both Martin and Ken died within days of each other.

“I struggled the first year with what I would consider fear and anxiety of feeling like I didn’t have enough time,” Kentigian says.

That January, Kentigian met with Dr. Martin Maron, a world-renowned HCM specialist from Boston, and he advised that she have her pacemaker replaced with a defibrillator in case she had an arrhythmia. So, three months after her first “permanent” pacemaker was installed, she underwent surgery again.

“Before all this happened, I was really naïve and didn’t pay attention to my own heart condition very much,” Kentigian says, adding that she now connects with other people with HCM or a pacemaker through Facebook and Instagram. “They know what it’s like to look healthy but have a really bad day when you really can’t do much, but other days when you can.”

About a year after becoming what she calls “an electric lady,” Kentigian got more difficult news.

“They said that my heart was not strong enough to have children,” she says. “That was a hard pill to swallow, especially because for a long time I had been told, ‘as long as you don’t have problems…’”

Kentigian and her husband are considering adoption, but not quite yet.

Kristina Kentigian holds a heart-shaped ornament she made. Photo by Lauryn Hottinger

“We decided we’d take time enjoying each other, enjoying life and traveling a little more,” Kentigian says, talking about a trip to New Orleans. “There’s a little adjustment period when your plan has been shifted, not of your choice.”

Kentigian works at Highland Avenue Greenhouse in Scarborough and writes music she records with music partner Kyle Friday. They are about to release their first record—under the R&B/soul duo name Electric Heart.

Kentigian’s “electric heart” will eventually need to be replaced.

“But I have this amazing team of people taking care of me,” she says. “It’s good to be grateful for time. It’s precious. I appreciate things way more than I used to. I’m super-proud of my scar, because it shows what I’ve been through and survived. It’s a reminder, when I see it.”

Amy Paradysz is a freelance writer from Scarborough.

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