Wilton heart disease survivor runs marathon in Chicago

Selina Santos of Wilton is not one to back off from a challenge. In fact, if someone tells her she can’t do something, it makes her want to do it even more.

So when she was diagnosed with heart disease and told her doctor she wanted to run in a marathon in Chicago, the answer was “no.” Taking that rebuff as a personal challenge, Santos made a number of lifestyle changes and started a medical regime which eventually turned her doctor’s no into a yes.

So Santos put on her running shoes on Oct. 7, a rainy Sunday, and took part in the 26.2-mile Chicago marathon, finishing in five hours and 11 minutes. “Being able to run in a marathon after believing I couldn’t, gives me new purpose, not just for me but for those who have heart disease and for everyone who has been told they can’t,” said Santos.

She was so proud of her marathon medal she wore it for days, even at work in Stamford where she is co-executive producer of the Steve Wilkos show.

The journey to the finish line for the 42-year-old mother of two, was long and complicated.

The Chicago native, who has lived in Wilton for the past eight years, suffered from shortness of breath, chest pain, and palpitations when she exerted herself, going as far back as her teens and 20s. But when she went to a number of male doctors, they dismissed it as stress.

She tried to ignore repeated symptoms, but  in 2010, while working at her job in Stamford, Santos had severe trouble breathing and thought she was going to pass out. An urgent care center referred her to a cardiologist.

Santos started seeing Dr. Evelyn Cusack, a cardiologist at Stamford Hospital. “It changed my life,” she said.

Santos was diagnosed with aortic valve insufficiency. She had tiny holes in her heart and her heart valve was leaking, compromising her heart’s ability to circulate blood properly. She had two choices: future surgery or a lifestyle change.

Lifestyle change

“From that first diagnosis, I made it a point to put my health first — I had a family to be strong for — a life worth living,” she said. Her lifestyle change involved taking special medication, monitoring her heart, and exercise.

Over time, her blood pressure stabilized and she found she could do things without being breathless. She was even reduced to just one medication. Not content to sit still, Santos set herself a new goal and challenge — to run the marathon in her Chicago hometown.

However, last January, Santos’ blood pressure was spiking and she was put on new medication. She asked Cusack if she could run a marathon, and was firmly told “no.” She signed up for the race anyway and began training. Santos was told, “if I could do a half-marathon in a decent time, I could run the marathon.”

So on July 18, Santos ran in the Coney Island half-marathon, completing it in just a little over two hours. Her heart rate was good and she felt no symptoms.

She sent Cusack an email, asking again for her approval to run the Chicago marathon. Cusack responded by email, saying, “Congratulations, I am so happy and proud of you. I totally agree — go for the Chicago marathon — hometown baby! Go for it, sister!”

Energized and emotionally pumped, Santos trained every day leading up to the marathon on Oct. 7. The race ended up being grueling for Santos when she got hamstring cramps at mile 19.5 and hit an emotional wall. “I was breathless and I knew my blood pressure was high. I thought I might have to stop. But I saw my family and friends cheering me on and I got a second wind and willed myself to finish,” she said.

“We congratulate Selina for her incredible achievement. She is truly an inspiration,” said Carolyn Torella, American Heart Association spokesperson. “She showed that not only can you survive heart disease, you can thrive.”