A walk of the heart

More than 1,000 lace up their shoes to fight heart disease


Herald Writer

EDMONDS — For six years, Alex Henson has joined the annual Snohomish County American Heart Walk. This year, she walked with a friend her age who also shares her motivation.

Alex, 13, of Edmonds, was born with a heart defect. She had three holes in her heart, a closed vessel and a valve that didn’t work. Her first heart surgery occurred when she was 6 weeks old and her second at the age of 2. At age 4, doctors put a stint in her heart to keep the blood vessel open so the valve doesn’t have to work so hard.

"She’s doing really well," her mother, Tana Axtelle, said. "She’s very small for her size. She does have some limitations, but nothing that keeps her from living a normal life."

Alex is even on a jump rope team. In 1990, she was the Washington Heart Association’s poster child.

Axtelle was one of more than 1,000 people to join this year’s heart walk Saturday, covering 3.1 miles to raise money for research and community education. Edmonds firefighters on bicycles pedaled the route to keep an eye on some of the walkers who suffer from lung ailments.

Each year, the walk and the amount of money raised for the Washington Heart Association grows. In 1998, the county goal was $100,000. Last year, it increased to $175,000, and this year it is $200,000. The walk was one of four such events taking place across the state.

"I believe we’re going to hit our goal," said Paul Mendez III, the association’s regional director for Snohomish County.

"That’s really good," said Jonathan Modie, association spokesman, as he looked over the crowd of walkers, including many sporting red hats that identified them as survivors of heart problems.

They came in all ages and sizes, including a large dog dressed in a white T-shirt who eagerly accompanied his humans on the waterfront walk.

Donn Wells of Edmonds joins the walk each year in honor of his granddaughter, Anna Thordarson, 11, of Arlington. Anna also was born with a hole in her heart that doctors discovered when she was 18 months old. She’s had two open heart surgeries, at age 2 and 4, at Children’s Hospital and Regional Medical Center.

Wells raised about $300 in his neighborhood this year.

"The money that goes for research covers all sorts of heart defects," he said. "A lot of that research is done at the University of Washington Medical Center."

People often think of heart diseases and ailments as afflictions of the elderly, but they can affect any age.

Elizabeth Stevenson, 61, of Lynnwood became interested in the walk 16 years ago after her husband John suffered his first heart attack at age 46 and smoked his last cigar. He had a second attack a year later and had to undergo bypass surgery.

"That’s when he became serious about good diet and exercise," Stevenson said.

He remained well for four years, then suffered a third heart attack, but was treated by paramedics right away and had little damage. A year after that, John suffered a fourth heart attack that nearly killed him. He had only 30 percent heart function and awaited a transplant.

"The sad thing about that is that at any given time, there are 50,000 people waiting for a transplant," Stevenson said. "In the U.S., about 2,000 people get a transplant."

John Stevenson spent six weeks in the hospital on life support before he received a transplant.

"After that, the first year was very, very rough," Stevenson said. Because his immune system had been suppressed, he developed lung cancer, but he survived that after six months of chemotherapy. A year later, he suffered a pulmonary embolism while skiing in Colorado.

He died in May, at 64, of congestive heart failure after deciding not to seek a second transplant because he felt someone else needed the heart more, his wife said.

"We had the opportunity to live a very full life," she said. "It was just a gift. He had limitations, but he didn’t let them limit him. He was a very fine, courageous man."

Elizabeth joined the heart association after John’s first heart attack. At that time, the county heart walk raised $30,000, she said. Last year, it raised $160,000.

The association’s goal is to reduce death and disability from heart diseases and stroke by 25 percent by the year 2010, she said.

She and Carrell Tysver, 53, of Bothell were among a group who released white balloons in John Stevenson’s memory after the walk.

Tysver suffered a massive stroke two years ago that left her paralyzed and unable to speak or write.

"I have spent two years rebuilding my life," she said.

Tysver’s sister, Melodee Jones, 50, of Spokane, joined her on the walk this year to promote awareness of heart attack and stroke symptoms and the importance of heeding a doctor’s warning about the dangers of high blood pressure, and to honor their mother, who died from a heart attack.

Tysver underwent a year of physical therapy, then began a year of her own dance therapy to regain the abilities she lost.

"I have re-learned all the skills I taught my children," she said. "They have watched me struggle."

Last year, she joined the Lilac Bloomsday Run in Spokane.

"It was very, very slow, but we finished it — 2 1/2 hours for seven miles," Tysver said.

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