After flatlining, elite athlete Kari Turkowski, Ph.D., finds new purpose at Mayo Clinic

An accomplished athlete, Kari Turkowski, Ph.D., first came to Mayo Clinic as a patient searching for answers. After receiving a diagnosis, she came back as a student. Today, she's a staff member working to find answers like the ones she was searching for years ago.

Kari Turkowski, Ph.D., was working as a tax accountant in St. Cloud, Minnesota and living a more than active life. A three-sport college athlete, she continued to train after college at levels that would prepare her to be an elite volleyball competitor.

Life was good. But then the unthinkable happened: her heart stopped beating. Doctors miraculously brought her back to life, but the harrowing experience put her on a new course — one that would see her move from being a Mayo Clinic patient to a doctoral student at the Mayo Clinic Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, and finally, a Mayo staff member.

Today she brings her deep understanding of Mayo's three shields to her role as solutions manager for Mayo Clinic Platform.

Experiencing the unthinkable

Always athletic — with an eye toward the Olympics at one time — Turkowski started to notice changes in her heart at age 28.

"Running long distances was more challenging. I found that I could not maintain the pace that was my baseline, and I started to experience very brief moments of blacking out," she says. "As I set out to find answers to my heart complications, many roads led me to Mayo."

In 2012, Turkowski's doctors at Mayo Clinic decided she needed a catheter ablation, a minimally invasive procedure that guided a small tube into her heart to destroy small areas of tissue causing her heart to beat irregularly.

During the procedure, she experienced a cardiac arrest and her heart stopped.

Doctors revived her but discovered that her heart had sustained severe tissue damage at some point in the past. Initially, they didn't know what had caused it.

Today her Mayo team is confident that the damage was due to a viral infection that led to inflammation of the heart muscle (myocarditis) and significant scarring, which resulted in episodes of accelerated heart rate (ventricular tachycardia) while training.

As a result of this damage, Turkowski continues to live with cardiomyopathyheart failure and ventricular tachycardia. Despite these serious diagnoses, she maintains an active lifestyle. She often wakes up before sunrise to train and spends her free time biking and enjoying water sports.

In 2017, she even trained for the Ironman Wisconsin. She began the event — a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run — but was unable to progress past the swim due not to her heart but to pneumonia. (You can read more about that experience in this story.)

Back to school

While her diagnosis didn't change Turkowski's passion for pushing herself physically, it did change her vision of what she wanted to do with her life outside athletics. She decided leave her tax career behind to pursue a career in the medical field.

"I vowed when I went back to school to give back to those looking for hope — the same hope I needed when I was sick," she says.

She returned to her alma mater, St. Cloud State, where she worked as an assistant volleyball coach while completing prerequisites for medical or graduate school.

In 2015, Turkowski completed her preparatory coursework and secured a spot at the Mayo Clinic Graduate School of Biomedical Science, where she studied genetic heart conditions "in the extraordinary lab and under the amazing mentorship of Dr. Michael Ackerman," she says.

Turkowski earned her doctorate in biomedical sciences in 2020 with a thesis focused on polygenic risk scores and artificial intelligence solution development for long QT syndrome, an inherited disease that can cause life-threatening heart arrhythmias.

"In simple terms, I studied the risk for disease based on genetic markers — and how artificial intelligence-based solutions could help," she says.

Working with Mayo Clinic Platform team

Her background in artificial intelligence drew Turkowski to Mayo Clinic Platform following graduation.

"Mayo Clinic Platform allows me to connect my business and science expertise into a single role," she says.

She was offered a fellowship in October 2020 and works today as a solutions manager, overseeing a team of three.

"Together we work with solution developers — the innovators both internal and external to Mayo Clinic who create the solutions that 'wrap around' AI-based algorithms so they can be used in the clinical setting," Turkowski says.

She's leading the development of the GI Platform, the first platform for digital workflow in the gastrointestinal field and a key initiative between Mayo Clinic Platform and the practice.

"Our collaborative goal is to transform the GI field by creating the first platform for digital workflow — including automated video acquisition and enhancement — which includes an AI runtime environment to make future functionality possible," she says.

For clinicians, that will mean improved workflows for faster, more accurate communication among care teams. For patients, it will mean fast, accurate answers.

"No. 1 is to improve patient care," Turkowski says. Her own experiences as a patient have keep her focused on that goal.

"Thinking back to my own health, things could have been different if we had the solutions we are building now. It excites me that one day, someone who has a similar condition or event to me may not have to experience the same level of fear and care that I did," she says.

"I truly believe that this will be the case because our future patients will have access to early detection and preventive care via AI models to find and stop disease in its tracks."

Learn more

Watch Kari Turkowski tell her story at TedxStCloud or in this short video.