SALT LAKE CITY — Two summers ago, Michele Straube stood at the apex of the 15,000-foot Salkantay Pass in Peru and, red-faced because she was a) out of breath and b) mad as a hornet, said "no mas" to ever trekking mountains again.
This week, she's leaving for Monaco to start a 22-day hike at the start of the fabled Via Alpina trail through the Alps.
So what happened in between?
Nothing short of a miracle.
That's what Michele calls it.
After a series of events that bring new meaning to the word "fortuitous," Michele is done forever with the atrial fibrillation — distorted heart rhythm — that had plagued her throughout her adult life.
It all began, or rather it all began to end, with getting mad in Peru. Michele was with her husband Bob and their teenage children, Woody and Sierra, on the Salkantay, a popular trekking trail in the Andes. On the day they negotiated the stretch leading to the summit, she found herself bent over at every switchback, fighting for breath and dizzy. Exhausted but also exhilarated at the top, in her anger she knew she would never ascend another mountain unless she found some sort of relief.
When she arrived back home in Salt Lake she went straight to the Internet, resolved to research everything she could find on atrial fibrillation — "afib" for short.
Afib is a condition where the electricity running through the heart doesn't function properly. After entering the atrium, instead of producing a distinct beat, the electric current fibrillates — acting more like a butterfly's wings than a blacksmith's hammer — resulting in a considerably less efficient heart muscle.
Since her early 20s, Michele had lived with afib — as do an estimated 5 million Americans, some who know they have it and some who don't. After she was diagnosed, she took heart medication and blood thinners and sometimes carried a chair around with her so she could sit down and catch her breath.
Active by nature, she still exercised — and hiked mountains — but with a reverse benefit. The more she did, the weaker she got.
All of which brings us to what she found in that Internet search.
She learned of a procedure called MRI-guided ablation performed by Dr. Nassir Marrouche at University Hospital — about four miles from her backyard.
Ablation rearranges the heart circuitry through a series of scarring procedures. After taking an MRI of her heart, Marrouche gave Michele 80 percent odds that ablation could correct her afib.
She practically pole-vaulted onto the operating table.
When she woke up she heard the most wonderful sound of her life: her pulse.
"I knew right away," says Michele. "It was so regular."
For the first time in over 20 years she rode a bike — "My husband said I looked like a little kid I was smiling so big," she says — and she found great joy in doing something the vast majority of the world takes for granted: being able to walk uphill and talk at the same time.
But by far the biggest aha moment for Michele was realizing that there is a cure for afib. Not a cure-all. Ablation won't necessarily fix every fibrillation problem. But it is possible. And it did cure hers.
She decided she wanted to do something to get the word out.
And what better way than trek through the Alps?
She and Bob will be leaving this weekend for Monaco for the start of the Via Alpina, a trail that winds 1,500 miles through eight countries and ends in Italy near the Slovenian border. Their plan is to cover the first 221 miles this time and then return each year to continue until they've gone the distance.
Michele says her "Into the Heart of the Alps" adventure has three purposes: 1) Raise awareness of afib and its possible remedies, 2) Provide a way for people to donate to afib research and 3) Celebrate.
You can donate and/or read all about Michele and afib on her blog at http://bit.ly/hHPG2f.
"I want people to know that afib exists and that there are options," says Michele.
Shouting it from the top of the mountains seems like the ideal place to start.
Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Monday and Friday. Email: [email protected]