Heart transplant gives Judd the running bug

A heart transplant saved Charlotte Judd's life, and she tells worldrunning.com how she is planning to take part in her first marathon next year

© Organisers

Charlotte Judd required a heart transplant after suffering from a worsening heart condition which she was initially diagnosed with when she was three months old. Her condition deteriorated markedly over time to the extent the surgeons were reluctant to operate, as they believed she wouldn’t live through the procedure. Along with her family, Charlotte even started to make arrangements for her funeral but after being turned down twice, she was eventually listed and received the transplant which has transformed her life.

Charlotte has said she’s had “no problems” since the transplant, which has allowed her to tick off numerous items on her always-evolving bucket-list. Among other things, the transplant has enabled her to take up running and Charlotte has completed as many as 30 road-races to date, including six half-marathon this year. A marathon is also pencilled in the diary for next year as well.

Worldrunning.com caught up with Charlotte just after the Oakley New York Mini 10K, which she took part in after winning a competition on Facebook run by the title sponsor of the event.

Worldrunning.com: Could you describe your illness, and the recovery process?

Charlotte Judd: I was born with a congenital heart muscle disease and I was diagnosed with it at the age of three months. Medication worked to control my symptoms of the heart muscle disease for a long time but as I got older, I acquired more and more symptoms of the disease: congestive heart failure, arrhythmias, blood clots etc. I also wasn’t allowed to participate in any organised sport because I had to have the ability to stop and rest, and organised sports did not allow for that. After I moved away to college I started to get very sick - we tried several medications that didn’t work so then we tried a procedure called a cardiac ablation. I was 21 at the time and the procedure went very well, but the doctor was not able to complete it so he was going to install a pacemaker/AICD and I was to return to the hospital during my spring break to complete the procedure.

During the placement of the AICD, the doctors put my heart into the arrhythmia known as v-tach and the AICD fired but did not work. From then, I went into cardiac arrest and they performed CPR, chest compressions, and used the external defibrillators to resuscitate me. That night my heart continued to go back into v-tach and yes, I remember being shocked by the defibrillators one time out of many. I could not be sedated because my blood pressure was too low. Once I lived through that ordeal, I was immediately told that I could not leave the hospital until I received a heart transplant.

I was also re-diagnosed with the rare heart condition known as congenital non-compaction syndrome of the left myocardium. It is thought that most people who have this disease die in infancy. I was in stage 4 heart failure and placed on the very top of the transplant list. After I was listed (which was a struggle to get on the list as I was turned down twice because my case was not a usual case) I waited 26 days before I was transplanted. Since then, no problems.

WR.com: Has the transplant enabled you to start running, or was this something you were able to do in some capacity before?

CJ: I was never allowed to run. Even me asking if I could run would send my cardiologist into a panic! When I was told that I would need a heart transplant, one of my first questions was: ‘will I be able to run with this new heart?’ There was no guarantee that I would, but it was a possibility. Since being transplanted I have participated in 25-30 road races, including six half-marathons this year.

WR.com: What attracted you to the challenge of running a half-marathon?

CJ: I had been considering a half-marathon for a while but I have to admit I was a little shaky about what my body would be able to do. A good friend of mine and running partner convinced me to run one and after my first, I was sold. The very next day I signed up for another half-marathon that was held a month later. I love a good challenge.

WR.com: I understand you gained your entry for the Oakley New York Mini 10K after winning a competition. What was it about the Mini 10k which made you want to be a part of the event?

CJ: I am always looking for a way to bring up the topic of organ donation. Nobody wants to talk about it because there are a lot of misperceptions about organ donation and it always seems to be surrounded by death and of course, no one wants to talk about death. I saw this contest and thought: I love running, I want to go to New York, and I think it would be a great opportunity to show lots of people what organ donation is truly all about.

WR.com: As a first-timer racing in New York, what was the race-day atmosphere like? Was it comparable to any of the other road-races you’ve taken part in?

CJ: This was the first race that I have had a photographer taking pictures of me at the race! This was also the first race that I had VIP access to breakfast and restrooms, etc. I felt like the atmosphere was comparable to other road-races I have been in, kind of a nervous/excited energy but at the same time everyone seems to support each other. This is my second women’s-only road-race and there is something empowering about seeing all women and no men on the course. It feels like we are all out there for the same purpose, to conquer something bigger than ourselves.

WR.com: How important is running in your everyday life in terms of keeping fit, and using it as a vehicle to raise awareness?

CJ: Running is my go-to. I have a pretty stressful job and a hectic schedule so part of keeping fit is clearing my mind and I can do that on a run. People are amazed when they find out that I have had a heart transplant and I am lined right up next to them in the racing corral. Running makes it easy to reach people and when people see that I can complete 13.1 miles, I think they get a better understanding of what organ donation is all about and it doesn’t seem so scary. I am also planning for a full marathon next year in March.

WR.com: Are there any do’s and don’ts as far as your training is concerned?

CJ: Don’t run outside in the south Texas summer! As far as my training is concerned, I work with a personal trainer so that I make sure I know what I am doing for strength training and cardio. I have just recently added spinning to my training because I want to improve on my overall speed. A lot of articles that I read tell readers to train even if you don’t want to, but I don’t take this advice because if I am not in the mood to train, then I just get frustrated and end up having a bad workout session. My biggest ‘do’ is always have music on long runs and I use a foam roller before every race (my friends tease me) but it works tremendously on preventing leg cramps. The night before race day I have to eat Italian food for carb loading or I feel like I won’t have a good run.

WR.com: You’ve run many half-marathons since the transplant, and a marathon is also on the to-do list. Have you done any other activities on your bucket-list?

CJ: While I was in the hospital waiting to be placed on the list to receive an organ transplant, this took an unusually long time because I was a rare case and and after being turned down by the medical review board twice because they felt like I would die during a transplant procedure, my parents and I planned my funeral. I picked out the clothes I wanted to wear, the preacher that I wanted to do my funeral etc. I was just hoping to at least get the chance to finish my undergraduate degree because I was a junior in college at the time I received my transplant.

My bucket list changes every day because there is so much I want to do. I have done lots of things though: I finished my undergraduate degree; I earned my Master’s degree; I am working on a second Master’s degree currently; I have a full-time job; I just bought a brand new house this year; I am getting married in August; I have been to Mardi Gras in New Orleans (college student bucket list); I hosted my best friend’s bachelorette party in Las Vegas; and I have just come back to New York. I still have a long bucket-list to go though.

WR.com: What do you think could be done to change the way people perceive organ donation?

CJ: I think we need to make organ donation talks as common as talks about cancer. When I tell someone my story or if someone happens to find out that I have had a heart transplant, most often the person I am talking to has a friend or family member who has either had a transplant, died while waiting for a transplant or is waiting on a transplant.

The need for organ donation is out there but we don’t talk about it enough because it seems like people are not comfortable with the topic. We need to make the topic comfortable. I think even something as simple as public service announcements with accurate information on television could get the ball rolling. I am part of a group in Houston that promotes organ donor awareness and we have done so many times at large sporting events, hockey games/baseball games etc. The Transplant Games are being held in Houston this year, I am participating on Team Texas, and we are hoping that we can make a lasting impression on what organ donation can do (the majority of people do very well after transplant) on one of the largest cities in the U.S.

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