By Erika I. Ritchie
Every day for the first 14 years of her life, Ali Aga would lie down to sleep to the sound of her heart pounding.
Only recently has the now-15-year-old Dana Hills High School freshman gotten used to the sound and feeling of just hearing her breath.
“Now that I’m totally fixed, I don’t feel anything,” Ali said of her heart.
Ali is fixed thanks to the efforts of her Dana Hills High School tennis coach; her mother, Tina Aga; her doctors; but mostly because of Gail Myers.
Myers’ 14 -year-old daughter, Megan Myers, was running in a Dana Hills cross-country meet at Laguna Niguel Regional Park in 2007 when she stopped abruptly and told her mother she wasn’t feeling well.
As the pair walked to their car, Megan collapsed, unconscious. Her coach, a former firefighter, performed CPR but by the time an ambulance arrived, it was too late. Megan Myers died an hour later.
Immediately following the tragedy, Gail Myers, of Laguna Niguel, launched a campaign to push for annual heart screenings at Dana Hills and other local high schools.
Myers learned of Holly Morrell, of Laguna Beach, who founded Heartfelt Cardiac Projects, a nonprofit dedicated to detecting risk factors for sudden cardiac arrest. The two partnered and in 2008, Dana Hills High School held its first heart screening.
On Monday, Myers met Tina Aga and her daughter for the first time, when the annual screening returned to Dana Hills.
“It was heartbreaking and memorable — if it wasn’t for her I wouldn’t be here today,” Ali said, embracing Myers. “She had a daughter my age pass away. No one was there for her. I’m grateful she was here for me and now for so many other kids.”
Monday’s screening at Dana Hills was Morrell’s ninth at the high school. It also marked the 50,000th screening Morrell has done since starting the nonprofit in 1999. More screenings are planned at schools this week, including Estancia High School in Costa Mesa and JSerra Catholic High School in San Juan Capistrano. Laguna Beach High School will hold a screening on June 15.
When Ali went for her screening last year, it was just something she was doing because her coach had sent an email to her mother. Her 12-year-old brother went along, too.
A few days later, Tina Aga got a call from Children’s Hospital of Orange County, saying a cardiologist had read Ali’s test results and she needed to be seen immediately.
“We were on the San Clemente pier and my mom sounded really in shock and confused,” Ali said. “I was totally chill because my mom said they needed to see me but it was probably a mistake.”
But, when Ali and her mother arrived at CHOC, doctors explained that she had Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome — a condition in which there is an extra electrical pathway in the heart.
“They showed me her heart (rate) and what a normal one would look like,” said Tina Aga. “A family doctor would read it as normal. It was just a hairline different. She was born with more electric wiring in her heart. When it gets going, it can’t stop. Her heart rate would go really fast and she didn’t know it wasn’t normal.”
Ali and her mother were told WPW either results in sudden cardiac arrest or in fainting. Doctors said they wouldn’t know which her situation was until they performed surgery on her.
Four days later, Ali underwent a 10-hour heart surgery. “It was supposed to be three hours but ended up at 10 and they still didn’t get all of it,” her mother said.
Ali ended up in CHOC’s intensive care unit.
“On the second day, a cardiologist came in with a radiograph of Ali’s heart and talked about framing it,” said Tina Aga. “Just as we’re about to leave the heart monitors go insane and her neck starts throbbing.”
Ali was put on heart medication. Her mother also got her an Apple Watch to monitor her heart rate.
On medication and back at school, Ali returned to playing tennis and studying. Doctors gave her tips to monitor her breathing and how to control her heart rate, if needed.
But, her heart rate soon spiked again.
That’s when Tina Aga decided it was time to see if more could be done. With the help of Dr. Anthony McCanta, who did the original surgery, she connected with Dr. James Perry at Rady’s Children Hospital-San Diego. Together, the doctors operated again.
“They found an aneurysm in her artery,” said Tina Aga. “I don’t think she would be here today if they hadn’t done the surgery together.”
For Ali, life is good now.
After a few weeks of adjusting to her new heart rate, she said, she began to experience life in new ways.
“What I knew as ‘normal’ running up stairs at the beach felt completely different after my procedure,” she said. “Now I’m totally fine and better than ever.”
Gail Myers said it was a thrill to meet Ali.
“It’s such a great success story,” she said. “I’m so glad her mom was so proactive. This just gives me something good to think about.”
Information on upcoming screenings is at heartfeltcardiacprojects.org.