Twenty Years After Transplant, Heart is Beating Strong

Angie Mikkelson used to want to fly under the radar and not tell others she'd had a heart transplant. But then she realized the effect she could have by sharing her story and encouraging others to donate.

Angie Mikkelson crossed the finish line of the Tevis Cup and felt a wave of gratitude for those who had helped her get there. There was the team that had crewed for her and her horse, Archie, during the 100-mile trail ride, known as the Boston Marathon of endurance riding. There was Archie himself, a 10-year-old Arabian loaned to Angie by her friend Hannah for the event. And then there was a woman Angie has never met, but whose heart beats inside her chest. "All my accomplishments I owe partially to someone else," Angie tells us. "I want people to know that so other people can live like I get to."

Angie was born with a congenital heart condition, initially diagnosed as endocardial fibroelastosis. Her parents were told there was no treatment, and doctors said the condition would eventually take their daughter's life. But that prognosis changed when Angie was 16. She and her mother moved from Western Montana to Fargo, where Angie met with a new cardiologist. He ran a series of tests and gave Angie some surprising news. "He didn't think I had endocardial fibroelastosis," she says. "He recommended I go to Mayo Clinic."

At Mayo, more tests confirmed the Fargo physician's suspicion and revealed a new diagnosis: a parachute mitral valve. Angie was told the condition would eventually leave her heart so damaged that she'd need a transplant.

Angie pushed the news to the back of her mind. "I was young. I blew it off," she says. "I lived my life." But then when Angie was 24, she developed a persistent cough. "I was hacking all the time," she says. "I went to a walk-in clinic and then to the cardiologist. She told me, 'You're in heart failure. You need to go to Mayo now.'" Angie did, and she was placed on the transplant list in the spring of 1999. Less than a year later, she received a new heart. The transplant was transformational. "I woke up from surgery and could feel my heart beating in my chest," Angie says. "I'd never had a strong heartbeat. I felt like my heart was going to beat me off the bed."

Photo courtesy of Bill Gore of Gore/Baylor Photography.

A few months after receiving her new heart, Angie was back home. And soon after that, she was back in the saddle. She'd discovered horseback riding as a child, when she'd had restrictions on her cardiovascular activity. She couldn't participate in sports or gym class, but she could ride horses. And now, with a healthy heart, she was ready to ride farther than ever before. "I did my first 25-mile ride in 2000," she tells us. A few years later, she moved on to 50-mile rides. And in 2009, Angie completed her first 100-mile ride. She'd also begun running, biking and swimming — activities that had been out of reach most of her life. "Because of my transplant, I was able to do things I had never thought I could," she says.

Recently, Angie has taken on another new activity: serving as an ambassador for LifeSource. "I used to get upset when my husband would tell people that I'd had a transplant," she says. "I wanted to fly under the radar. But as I've gotten more open about sharing my story, I've seen a change in how people think about transplant. I've had people send me messages after hearing my story. They've told me, 'I was never a donor until I heard you talk about it.'"

It's a message Angie shared at the Tevis ride, where she crossed the finish line wearing a "Donate Life" jersey. "I feel like I owe it to my donor to share my story," Angie says. "I got to live because of her and the decision her family made."

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