'Bionic' Bradenton runner overcomes heart limitations

rdymond@bradenton.comSeptember 23, 2013 

MANATEE -- To watch Katherine "Katie" Hernandez of west Bradenton run full out at Robinson Preserve on a cool September morning, one would never suspect the 53-year-old needs a pacemaker to regulate her heart's electrical system.

But like millions worldwide, Hernandez is alive because of bioengineering. She, however, doesn't let it limit her.

She works out five mornings a week and runs half-marathons, including one last March, just two years after major heart surgery.

"I guess I mostly want to share with people that if you have the desire to do something, do it," Hernandez said. "Just substitute whatever your desire is for running, which is my desire."

Hernandez's fierce persistence to resume her life despite her medical condition, has won an international honor that has her training for an important race Oct. 6 in Minnesota. Hernandez was recently selected one of only 25 long-distance runners from around the world to compete in the Medtronic Twin Cities Global Heroes Marathon or Medtronic Twin Cities 10-Mile in Minneapolis. Hernandez is running in the 10-mile event.

Hernandez was up against

350 applicants to be a Global Hero, all of whom have overcome a serious health condition with the help of medical technology, said Danielle Pierce, spokeswoman for Medtronic Foundation.

Medtronic manufactures medical devices, such as the one controlling Hernandez's heart, to treat heart disease, diabetes, spinal disorders and other conditions, Pierce said.

The Medtronic Global Heroes program started eight years ago to celebrate the accomplishments of runners, like Hernandez, who use medical devices.

"This year, Global Heroes represents 12 countries and range in age from 20 to 62," Pierce said.

Hernandez, a registered nurse married to a physician, Bradenton's Dr. Jorge Hernandez, actually has two devices helping her heart work.

She received an artificial heart valve in 2011, when she was 51, to replace an aortic valve with only two cusps, or leaflets, rather than the three most people have at birth.

Four days later, she got the pacemaker when her cardiologist, Bradenton's Dr. Alberto Montalvo and surgeon, Bradenton's Dr. Alexandro Golino, realized her heart was not able to fall into a correct beat.

She is now, as she likes to say, "a bionic woman."

Medtronic, which manufactures Hernandez's pacemaker, chose Hernandez partly because of her refusal to limit herself, Pierce said.

"Katie fell in love with running after her first half-marathon at age 44, but five years later she was feeling more and more fatigued when she ran," Pierce said. "She was embarrassed and grew depressed and started gaining weight before doctors diagnosed her with aortic stenosis. Medical technology saved Katherine's life twice, first with a valve replacement and then, four days later, with a pacemaker to correct complete heart block."

"I just stopped doing anything that would make me short of breath," Hernandez said of the years before her surgery. "I would get winded easily. I had a couple of episodes of almost passing out."

Hernandez leaves her home at 7 a.m. and works out at Robinson Preserve until about 9 a.m.

She said she has no running limitations and feels terrific.

"My husband has imposed a 'no-climbing' rule because of the blood thinners I take, but other than that, no, I can do anything," Hernandez said.

"Katherine eased her way back into running with a newfound sense of accomplishment and purpose," Pierce said.

Hernandez said medical technology ensures her only limitations are the ones she places on herself.

"I am here," Hernandez said. "I am living proof of what science can do. I think people can maintain an active lifestyle with the help of medical technology. You never know, when you drive to work, that guy or gal in the other car could have a pacemaker, artificial valve or insulin pump."

Her friends say she is a local hero.

"Katie is such an inspiration," said fellow fitness lover Lillian Pizzo. "I remember when Katie's heart disease got worse and she didn't want to do as much and sat down while exercising. After the surgery she pushed herself to come back. I honestly think she has now passed me.

"There was a time I didn't want to exercise but I thought, 'If Katie can do it, I can do it,' " Pizzo said.

Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072.

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