Alli Siulinski was a college student and competitive runner when she found out she had a congenital heart defect
“Too many people are caught up thinking if they have heart disease, they will know. They will feel it; there will be pain or awareness that there’s something wrong,” says Alli Siulinski. “But that isn’t always true.”
Siulinski, a competitive runner in her teens, merely thought her speedy heart rate was a sign of a race well run, not a congenital heart defect. Back in 2009, when she transferred to Keene State for her sophomore year of undergraduate studies, Siulinski needed to pass a physical exam to join the college’s track team. At 19, this was the first time she heard a doctor express concern about her heart and order further tests. An EKG picked up that she had an atrial septal defect—there was a hole in the wall between the two top chambers of the heart.
“At that moment, I realized I am not invincible,” says Siulinski. “My first question after that was, ‘What’s next? What are the challenges?’” Soon after her diagnosis, the cardiologist presented her with two options—continue living with the defect and be ever cautious of her level of exertion or undergo a surgical corrective procedure to close the hole.
“I knew I wanted to continue running, give myself a fighting chance,” says Siulinski. She opted for the surgery.
In simple terms, her doctor inserted a closure device into the hole through an artery. While the procedure was not open-heart surgery, it did lay up Siulinski for a few months in terms of her track career.
“It was hard for me to hold back,” she says. “I wanted to push myself past what I knew I should, but I also knew if I wanted to come back and do it right without complications, I needed to be patient and take it slow.”
When Siulinski was given the green light to run again, her patience in recovery paid off. She shaved 10 seconds off her half-mile pace. In 2010, she finished second in the NCAA Division III Indoor Championships, covering 800 meters in 2 minutes, 9 seconds.
“With the condition I had, oxygenated blood was skipping a cycle. My extremities weren’t getting enough oxygen,” she explains. “Having a fully functioning (though partially bionic) heart is the reason why I was able to get to the next level in competition.”
Now 28 and living in Portland with her husband, Siulinski no longer runs competitively. She stays active, but has turned her dedication to volunteering with the American Heart Association. Most recently she volunteered at Little Heart Hero Day. While some may consider Siulinski’s own journey inspirational, she was in awe with the children attending this particular event.
“These kids are so strong,” she says, commenting on how they are growing up knowing about their heart conditions whereas she only learned in her late teens. “You realize they are going to accomplish amazing things in their life even though they had this struggle since day one. They’re just so inspiring.”
Emma Bouthillette, a Biddeford native, is the author of “A Brief History of Biddeford.” She loves a good book and walking the beach with her corgi. www.emmabouthillette.com