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Optimistic side of heart surgery

Katie Sandburg, with her son, Nathan, making pizza, has had two open heart surgeries for a blood clot in her heart. Back for the third time, Sandberg is living with the clot now, taking shots twice daily to thin her blood. She has been chosen as the American Heart Association Heart Walk spokesperson for this year's walk, May 20.

Katie Sandberg describes the year 2005 as the worst year of her life. But, she also says she'd repeat it if she had the choice.

"I'd go through it again because I realize I can't take life for granted," she said.

Sandberg, of Detroit Lakes, has been chosen as the 2010 spokesperson for the American Heart Walk in Detroit Lakes on May 20. It starts at 5 p.m. with registration at the Pavilion.

Always a healthy child, when Sandberg went away to college at Minnesota State University Moorhead -- that was in 2003 -- she was staying active by climbing stairs and jogging on a treadmill, yet she felt "I just knew I was really getting out of shape."

She went to the clinic to see what was wrong and they thought maybe it was a cold. They took an x-ray, which showed nothing wrong. They put her on antibiotics and told her to come back in 10 days if she wasn't feeling better.

She returned 10 days later.

"By accident, they were taking a CAT scan and saw clots in my lung," she said.

She had a blood clot in her left lung. The CAT scan also, by accident, got a piece of her heart in the picture. Luckily, it showed the source of the blood clot.

"My family doctor said, 'When we heard hoof beats, we should have been looking for a zebra instead of a horse,'" she said.

So in November of 2003, she had her first open heart surgery.

"You go from being this immortal teenager to being told something is wrong with your heart," she said.

She couldn't relate to her peers after that. While they fretted over finals, boys and parties, she stressed about blood clots, open heart surgeries and her life.

Doctors removed most of the blood clot, leaving just the stem because it was too close to her heart wall.

"They were sure there was no way it would come back," she said of the blood clot. Tumors grow back, but blood clots don't.

She started to feel better like a young woman of her age should. But then she got pregnant in 2005, and one night while putting her yet-to-born son's crib together, she started coughing up blood.

"It was a scary ride (to the hospital) and to know you have to go through it again," she said.

The doctors found the blood clot in her heart was back, and after a sure-to-be difficult pregnancy, she could count on having another surgery on her heart.

To top it all off, the doctors had never seen a case like hers. They say there isn't another case in the world so "they're writing the book on it."

Sandberg's son, Nathan, was born nearly 12 weeks early. In November of 2005, she had gone to the hospital in Detroit Lakes and was told they had "no idea how to deliver your baby with your heart problem." So she was taken by ambulance to Fargo. From there, they airlifted her to Rochester to the Mayo Clinic, where Nathan was born.

After her cesarean section healed, Sandberg was scheduled for a second open heart surgery.

"I was having horrible pains throughout my body," she said.

She didn't know the cause of the pains, but after her family had all gathered at the hospital to watch her heart surgery, she found out she had to have her gall bladder removed instead -- the source of her pain.

After she had healed from that surgery, in March, Sandberg underwent her second open heart surgery. Doctors not only removed the clot, but they took out a piece the muscle lining in her heart and then painted it with non-growth serum, hopefully ensuring the clot wouldn't return.

"I felt confident in my doctors as they were the best the Mayo clinic had," she said.

At her six-month check-up, Sandberg learned the clot had come back for a third time.

"If the doctors at Mayo are stumped, who do you go to from there?" she questioned.

Not wanting to undergo a third heart surgery, especially with no guarantees, Sandberg has opted to give herself shots of a blood thinner in the stomach twice a day. It has worked so far, with the clot not growing anymore but still lodged in her heart.

It's Sandberg's story that led her to be chosen as the American Heart Association's spokesperson for the local walk. Her neighbor, Luanna Lake's son, Brady, was the spokesperson last year and they were asked to pick this year's spokesperson. Being in the same neighborhood and at barbecues together, the Lakes knew of Sandberg's heart condition.

When she was asked to be spokesperson, Sandberg said, "I don't know of anything else more up my alley," so she agreed to be the face of the heart walk this year. "I'm honored to know so many people care."

Sandberg noted that both she and her neighbor, Brady, who is 6, had heart problems. "It just goes to show it can happen to anyone at any age," she said. "You learn as you go."

One thing Sandberg has learned from all this is to enjoy life and try everything. She said she has many hobbies because she wants to sample them all.

She will be taking the blood thinner injections indefinitely and in the winter her arms and legs are so stiff and sore she can barely move, but she sees hope.

"I'm optimistic. I'm young. A lot can happen in 5, 10 years. People say I'm so young for this to happen. I tell them, 'I'm good now until I'm 120 years old.'"