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After numerous heart surgeries, local woman to run in Fargo half-marathon

When 30-year Katie Sandberg of Detroit Lakes was a freshman in college, she remembers walking up only one flight of stairs to the MSUM library and becoming so embarrassed she hid behind the bookcases.

“I was so out of breath, and there were sharp pains in my lungs, so I hid behind those bookshelves from my friends until I could catch my breath enough to talk — one flight of stairs,” said Sandberg.

What she didn’t know at the time was that she had been set up for a lifetime of heart and health problems from an auto accident at age 16.

“I had bruised my heart, so what they figured was that my heart keeps trying to over-repair itself,” said Sandberg, who had her first heart surgery in 2003 when she was 20.

The blood clot-style growth from her heart was removed, bringing her a short stint of feeling better. But the heart issues came back strong only two years later, when she was pregnant with her son.

“I was putting his crib together when I started coughing up blood because when it (the clot) breaks off, it goes into my lungs,” said Sandberg, who held off on having the much-needed surgery until after her pregnancy.

In 2006, she underwent surgery to remove her gallbladder and then had a second open-heart surgery.

While most women are able to concentrate on “getting their bodies back” after their first baby, Sandberg was just trying to make it through.

Although the surgery went well, its benefits were short-lived.

Within months, she was once again starting to feel the effects of clots forming.

But because open-heart surgery is dangerous and compromises the heart every time, doctors told Sandberg to wait.

And wait she did— for long years. She was told not to exert herself.

“With it slowly growing in there, it started to go into my lungs,” said Sandberg, who couldn’t seem to walk across the room without becoming short of breath.

In the summer of 2012, her body was beginning to give her serious signs that her condition was bad.

“I had a vegetable garden, and when I bent over, I got so light headed I thought I’d faint,” said Sandberg. “And then one day I actually did. I lost about two hours. I woke up and thought, I don’t care how overweight or out of shape I am, I should not be 29 and passed out in my yard.”

A look inside her lungs showed doctors why Sandberg had become so sick that year.

“I was only using about 10 percent of my lungs — the rest was filled with clots,” said Sandberg.

Doctors were reluctant to do surgery on her for fear the general anesthesia would be too much for her weak lungs, and that she wouldn’t wake up.

“But it became do or die pretty much,” said Sandberg, “so they did a third.”

Top-notch Mayo Clinic heart and lung surgeons put Sandberg under again in October of 2012 to repair the extensive damage caused to her heart and lungs and to try to dig out the root of the problem in her heart.

The surgery went well again, and like it had been for the last decade of her life, it was time to once again recover.

“This one was a long, hard recovery,” said Sandberg, who learned during one of the post-surgery checkups that she had stomach cancer.

“It turned out it wasn’t cancer, but an even more extremely rare condition where there was pancreatic tissue growing in my stomach,” said Sandberg, who just couldn’t seem to catch a break. She went through another surgery.

And although far too many surgeries and an inability to really exercise for the past decade had taken a serious toll on her body, Sandberg began another recovery at cardio rehab.

“I started going five minutes on the treadmill, and it was slow going,” said Sandberg, who had to sleep with an oxygen mask.

Last summer, Sandberg started taking walks out at Dunton Locks.

During one of those walks with a friend, Sandberg was pleasantly surprised when she realize that she did a whole, big loop like she had never done before, and what made her even more excited was that she did it while talking.

“I felt like I was in somebody else’s body — it was so weird,” said Sandberg, who became hooked on walking out there simply because she could.

“And then one day I went out with my iPod and the song “Walk” by the Foo Fighters came on, and it’s all about… like, dancing on my grave and I’ll never say goodbye, and it just hit me,” said Sandberg.

“And I ran. I ran hard and fast, and I didn’t really think about it… and then when I was done, I thought I was going to die,” she laughed.

But she didn’t die, so Sandberg says she thought she’d try it again the next night.

“And that’s when I got this crazy idea that I would run in a marathon,” she said, remembering feeling like she was completely “nuts.”

But once Sandberg started running, she didn’t stop.

She started working her way up from three miles, pushing herself to do more and more as time went on.

“You know, I had become so weak and dependent on people, and Nathan (her son, who is now a second-grader), always had to see his mom being sick and had spent so much time worrying about me,” she said. “I just wanted him to have a worry-free year.”

Sandberg says in less than a year, she dropped 54 pounds and feels better at 30 than she ever felt throughout her 20s.

And although she doesn’t know for sure what her heart will do from here on out, she’s embracing the here and now.

“I don’t know what the next year or two is going to look like… no one does,” said Sandberg. “And while it’s good, I want to be strong and I want my son to remember me being strong.”

And strong is what she intends on being as she laces up her running shoes for the Fargo Marathon, where she is registered to do a half-marathon.

“I’m not looking at the time at all because I know I’m slower than Internet Explorer in the 90s,” she laughed. “I’m dial up. I’m slow.”

But she’s steady, and determined to make it through, even if it’s only a once-in-a-lifetime thing.

“But then I’ll have that medal to go and show my heart surgeon and my lung surgeon that hey… you didn’t waste your time on me,” said Sandberg, who is running this race for the girl who could barely make it up one flight of steps.

“The girl who used to hide behind the MSU book-shelves is now going 13.1 on Saturday, baby,” Sandberg said with a smile.

Paula Quam

Paula Quam is the editor for Forum Communications Co. newspapers in Detroit Lakes, Perham and Wadena, all in Minnesota.

(218) 844-1466