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Michelle Nichols is more than happy to participate in Richmond’s annual Heart Walk. She’s happy to be walking at all.
“At the hospital, I actually died a couple of times,” says the 39-year-old Fredericksburg wedding consultant. “They were telling my mom and my husband to prepare for a funeral because, as they said, ‘She’s not going to make it.’ ”
She received an artificial heart implant in September 2011 at VCU Medical Center and underwent a heart transplant a little more than a month later. Today, her new heart fully acclimated to her body, she’s a willing fund-gatherer in the Richmond-area installment of the Heart Walk, which supports the American Heart Association’s cardiovascular research and educational programs.
Each year, millions of people participate in Heart Walks around the country, some of them organized through their place of employment, each walker raising money for the cause. Last year’s stroller- and dog-friendly walk along West Creek Parkway drew about 6,000 participants and raised $1,059,590 for the American Heart Association (AHA). Two courses are featured — one is 3.1 miles and the other a single mile.
“The AHA funds so much research,” says Leigh Sewell, vice president in charge of Service Line Strategy at Bon Secours Virginia Health System and 2016 co-chair of the Bon Secours Heart Walk team. “So many of the life-saving, cutting-edge surgical techniques out there all started as a clinical trial, as research. Without this funding opportunity, my husband may not have had the intervention he was able to have.”
Heart disease is personal to Sewell, 41. Her husband, a plastic surgeon, was 43 when he was diagnosed with an aortic aneurism, a congenital issue, she says. “I was 20 weeks pregnant with twins at the time. He could have died at any moment. So the issue became near and dear to my heart, no pun intended.”
The Heart Walk is not only a necessary fundraising tool, it’s a great family-friendly event, the Richmond resident says. “You see people of all ages, everyone from babies in strollers to grandmas, and everyone is there for a common cause. And almost everybody there has a story or has a personal connection to heart disease.”
Michelle Nichols participates in the Richmond Heart Walk each year with the Pauley Heart Pumpers, a group from VCU Medical Center. (Photo courtesy Michelle Nicholas)
Tommy Broughton, like Sewell’s husband, didn’t know he had heart disease until it was almost too late.
“It came out of the blue,” the former Powhatan County sheriff’s deputy says. “But not really. My family has a history of it. My daddy died at 65 of a heart attack, so I should have been more aware that I could have a problem.”
Mere months after his retirement, at age 63, he found himself squatting on the side of the road during a morning walk. “I was gasping for breath, couldn’t understand it,” he says. On the verge of having a major heart attack, Broughton would require immediate five-way coronary bypass surgery.
Ten years later, he’s living an active life, with eight grandchildren to spoil and a penchant for riding motorcycles.
“I go to the YMCA every morning and I’m more physically active than I ever was. A lot of it is hereditary, and you can’t do anything about that. But a lot of it is controlled by what you put in your mouth.”
Since his surgery, he’s made it a mission to stand up against heart disease. It started when his friend Jerry Grossman, a Heart Walk participant since 1999, asked him to carry a flag in the annual event. “I’ve been on six or seven walks now,” he says, “and I also volunteer with the Richmond chapter of Mended Hearts, a support group for people with heart issues. We go into local hospital heart units and talk to the patients, and try to show them that there’s still a good life following heart surgeries and heart problems.”
He looks forward to the annual Heart Walk. “I have really enjoyed talking with the people who are there. There’s a huge diversity of people, male, female, people of different races, a lot of these people are there because they have lost a loved one, many are there for the first time.” This is a social gathering that really means something, he says. “They’ve made so many advances in heart surgery and treatment, so many changes over the years; it’s all because of the funding and money raised through this event for the development of these new techniques.”
Michelle Nichols volunteers at VCU, counseling patients and their families. (Photo by Jay Paul)
The event isn’t just about the walk, it’s about disseminating information. “The Heart Walk creates education and awareness about eating, exercising, family history,” Sewell says. “We all need to be more vigilant about our own health and understanding the symptoms.” Last year’s installment featured, in addition to a kids zone and free health screenings, information on how to spot and prevent a stroke, cook healthy meals and administer CPR.
Nichols says she’ll participate as long as she’s able. Like Broughton, she gives back by volunteering. “I go to VCU to help other patients that are there going through transplant surgery, or to counsel family members, to make them feel at ease.”
She’s proud of the fact that she completed her first 5K run this past year. “I ran it in one hour, which was pretty good, I thought. But I’m not too excited about running. When I exercise, I’d much rather walk."
The 2017 Richmond Heart Walk will be held Oct. 7 at 12575 West Creek Parkway.