Karen Christensen was born with a hole in her heart but that didn’t stop her from achieving her dream of skating in the Ice Capades. Christensen shared her story as an honoree for Fairfield County Heart Walk helping raise heart disease awareness and funds for the American Heart Association. She and her son, Tyler, are active members of the You’re the Cure network.
Christensen, a private ice skating instructor at Stamford Twin Rinks, had a bumpy start coming into the world, born with multiple health issues including an atrial septal defect, or hole in the wall that separates the top two chambers of the heart. At six years old, she had open heart surgery at Yale New Haven to repair the defect.
As part of her recovery, doctors recommended that she participate in sports or physical activity that would strengthen her heart and build stamina.
“I tried gymnastics and ballet, but I really found my passion with ice skating,” said Christensen, “My parents would take me to ice shows and I realized that was what I wanted to do.”
At age 18, at the peak of her skills, she auditioned and was thrilled to be accepted into the Ice Capades national touring show. Training rehearsals in California were intense eight-hour daily sessions, six days per week with shows in new cities every week. She performed in six numbers per show—even once as a Smurf--but she wouldn’t have it any other way.
At age 32, when she was pregnant with her son, Tyler, she had the doctors check his heart . He was perfect. But just six months after his birth, she was the one with the heart issues. Christensen felt a strong, rapid heart rate that came and went. An EKG showed that she had atrial fibrillation (irregular heartbeat also known as AFib) and tachycardia, or rapid heart rate. Both can lead to life-threatening complications.
When medicine wasn’t enough to manage the heartbeat irregularities, she had electro-cardioversion—when doctors send an electrical rhythm to the heart to restore her normal rhythm. She endured this 22 times in her lifetime. Eventually, an ablation procedure was necessary to terminate the faulty cells which caused the extra heart beat impulses. Because of her childhood surgery, the procedure was complicated and required a 7-hour surgery.
The next year, Christensen was on blood thinners but back at skating, teaching and training.
“I skated even with the heart problem. One day I might need a cardioversion, and then I’d skate the next day,” she said, “I did less jumping because my heart was only function at 75 or 80%. It slowed me a bit, but it didn’t stop me.”
To this day, she researches new advancements in the care of arrhythmia.
“I’ll call my doctor and ask if I can have this new procedure I read about. The answer is always no because I have these complications,” she said, “Because of all the advancements and groundbreaking research of the American Heart Association, I went on to lead a full life, including becoming a professional ice skater with the Ice Capades.”
While she waits for the next new treatment, Christensen will continue skating, teaching and advocating for the American Heart Association to ensure that others have a healthy future.