After hearing the story of her 10 cardiac surgeries and seven pacemakers, you could be forgiven for thinking that Heidi Dohse has a weak heart. But the Google executive, endurance cyclist and, now, inspirational speaker she may have a stronger heart than most people on the planet.
Dohse, a senior program manager at Google and upcoming keynote speaker at DeviceTalks Minnesota, was 18 when an EKG before a routine knee surgery to clean out scar tissue, which had built up during her days as a competitive skier and professional windsurfer, uncovered a rare and potentially deadly arrhythmia.
“It turns out 270 [beats per minute] is not normal,” Dohse told MassDevice.com recently.
That routine EKG visit turned into a 30-day stay at University of California, San Francisco’s cardiac care unit, she told us, where she became essentially a research subject as doctors tried to decipher a rare arrhythmia that caused her heart rate to fluctuate from 270 BPM to 12 BPM.
Eventually, Dohse was asked if she wanted to participate in an experimental AV node ablation surgery, performed by Dr. Melvin Scheinman. It was then that she was implanted with the first of her seven pacemakers.
The revelation of her malady had answered years of questions that had stymied her – why would she would feel fine while exercising, only to be overcome by bouts of extreme lightheadedness? Why could she never find her pulse in gym class?
“I could always feel my heart beating, actually see it beating in my chest,” Dohse recalled. “I never considered it wasn’t normal.”
Dohse was so used to the feeling that, once she was was implanted with the pacemaker, she was terrified because she could no longer feel her heart beating anymore.
After surgery, she found herself in a strange place emotionally. Although relieved to finally have answers about her heart, there was a new reality Dohse hadn’t counted on: She was wracked by the anxiety of living with a machine implanted in her body to keep her alive. It was deeply troubling for the teenager; Dohse told us she spent nearly 18 months housebound, trying to figure out how to cope with her new reality and traumatized by the ordeal she had faced.
And although there were setbacks — and more surgeries — Dohse began to regain to her formerly athletic life, first returning to the water as a windsurfer and then eventually finding competitive cycling in 2004. That year she appeared in the first of the 200-mile, single-day races from Logan, Utah, to Jackson Hole, Wyo., in which she’s now a regular competitor.
Dohse also re-started her life as a patient advocate, dovetailing with her work at Google, where works on cloud-enabled technologies for healthcare and the foundation she started, Tour de Heart.
Dohse said she hopes to use her platform to help patients better adjust to life after the hospital, providing them with inspiration and knowledge on how to better interact with the medical technology that’s now a full-time part of their lives.
And she hopes to provide inspiration for heart patients, showing they can still live active and fulfilling lives in ways they may have thought impossible.