Lauren’s story: How roller derby saved my life

Lauren, who was born with ALCAPA, holds a sign about what roller derby is teaching her.I wasn’t a particularly athletic child. The second day of soccer practice, in sixth grade, we had to run laps around the soccer field, and 10-year-old me said, “I feel like I’m going to have a heart attack!” My coach disagreed. I quit. That much running was not for me.

Fifteen years later, at age 25, I had not only joined a roller derby league, but had also worked my way up to doing contact drills at practice in just three months. I felt incredible! I felt powerful! I felt unstoppable… until I went into cardiac arrest at a Thursday night practice this past July.

A lost two days

I woke up the following Sunday at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center (DHMC), and couldn’t remember the last two and a half days. I was told I had been doing a drill as a jammer (point scorer) and trying to push three opposing people hard enough to break their formation and skate past them. I had backed off to approach them again, when I went down on one knee, then on all fours, the safest way to go down. My teammates thought I needed a break — then I rolled over and my lips started turning blue. One of my teammates immediately started giving me CPR. The Enfield Police brought a defibrillator and I was transported to DHMC.

Lauren gets ready for surgery for ALCAPA.
Lauren prepares for surgery

The doctors told me they had run some tests, and thought it was a problem with my heart, but needed to do a cardiac catheterization to confirm. They discovered I had ALCAPA, which is an anomalous left coronary artery from the pulmonary artery. What this means is that the left side of the heart only gets deoxygenated blood.

They told me ALCAPA is an incredibly rare congenital cardiac anomaly. Normally, it’s found within the first two years of a child’s life, and corrected with surgery. Without this surgery, most people with ALCAPA don’t survive. The doctors were fascinated to find that the right side of my heart had developed collaterals, multiple little tubes, to push oxygenated blood to the left side of my heart. Until roller derby, I had never exerted myself enough to know that something was wrong.

A referral for surgery

Because ALCAPA is such a rare condition and typically occurs in children, my doctor immediately referred me to the Boston Adult Congenital Heart Program (BACH) at Boston Children’s Hospital. He said he’d rather I be treated by a team who could do the procedure in their sleep.

My surgeon, and co-director of the Coronary Artery Program at Boston Children’s, Dr. Luis Quinonez, met with my family and me and explained that they usually find ALCAPA early because babies that have it are colicky, or have a heart murmur, which I never had.

The BACH team explained the procedure and what they anticipated, detailing a “Plan A” to “Plan D,” depending on specific outcomes. I didn’t focus on how scary everything was. I had resolutely decided that even though surgery was just one option, that’s what I was doing. If I had made it this far, I would be fine.

Surgery ended up being a breeze. Dr. Quinonez said that once they started the operation, they were able to enact Plan A: move my left coronary artery and connect it to the left side of my aorta. Recovery wasn’t as easy. I had three chest tubes to drain the extra fluid from my chest, and had to be hooked up to an oxygen tank for four days. The first time I took a walk without the chest tubes or oxygen, I made the mistake of going at my regular pace and taking stairs.

Lauren, who had surgery for ALCAPA, at roller derby practice.
Lauren, on right, in orange helmet in her third month of practice. (Photo: John Foster, Lazy Lobo Photos)

Feeling unstoppable

Since then, I’ve taken walks and realized that before the surgery I would have gotten winded halfway through. My endurance is not at its best yet, but it’s still better than before. The doctors said that after the surgery, I would probably feel like Wonder Woman. I can see what they meant.

Before surgery, the one question I had was if I’d be able to return to roller derby. When I rejoin the league in February, I may have to start over, but this time, I’ll be unstoppable.

Learn more about Boston Children’s Coronary Artery Program and Boston Adult Congenital Heart Program (BACH).