WILTON, Conn. — Having heart disease isn’t a death sentence. Just ask Wilton’s Karen Christensen, who—despite being born with a heart defect— went on to fulfill her dream of becoming a professional figure skater in the Ice Capades.
Christensen, 50, was born with an atrial septal defect— a dime-sized hole in her heart. When she was 6, she underwent open heart surgery at Yale New Haven to repair the defect. That surgery is what led to her love for ice skating.
“After the surgery, the doctor told my parents I should get involved in a sports activity as a way to exercise and build up my strength,” said Christensen, an instructor at Stamford’s Twin Rinks. “I tried different things, but found my passion with ice skating.”
Christensen grew up watching ice shows with her parents and perfecting her skating skills. When she was 18, she auditioned for the Ice Capades national touring show, and made it.
From August 1982 to April 1983, Christensen toured the U.S. and Canada as a member of the Ice Capades, performing in six numbers per show. The experience, she said, was a dream come true.
“It was always something I wanted to do,” Christensen said.
Every year following her open heart surgery, Christensen returned to Yale to get a clean bill of health. When she was 21, she was told she no longer had to stop in for a yearly checkup.
“At that point, I thought, ‘this is great, I’m done with heart disease. I paid my dues,’” she said.
Christensen later went on to become an ice skating instructor and led a "normal life." But her heart problems weren’t over. After giving birth to her son at 32, Christensen said she began experiencing high heart rates, prompting her to visit a doctor. It was then determined she had atrial fibrillation (an irregular heartbeat) and tachycardia (rapid heart rate), so she was put on medication.
When the medication wasn’t enough, Christensen had to receive a cardioversion, a procedure in which doctors shock the heart to try and restore a normal rhythm. From 1997 to 2004, Christensen said she received 22 cardioversions and two other procedures called ablations.
Despite her condition, Christensen didn't put her life on hold.
“I would be cardioverted one day, and be out on the ice the next,” she laughed.
In 2004, doctors decided to stop performing cardioversions and put Christensen on blood thinners. Every day since, said she has lived in atrial fibrillation, and will until a new treatment procedure is available.
Christensen’s experience has led her to become active with the American Heart Association, not only to share her story with others, but to raise awareness about the need for medical research. She is being honored by the association this Saturday during the Fairfield County Heart Walk at Sherwood Island State Park in Westport.
“I want people to realize that even though you have heart disease, you can still live life everyday to the fullest— it’s not a death sentence,” she said. “I’m still waiting for a procedure to put my heart back into normal rhythm. Until that day, I will be in atrial fibrillation, which is why it’s so important for me to be involved with the Heart Association and for people to realize the need for a medical breakthrough.
“Without research and medical breakthroughs, I probably wouldn't be here,” Christensen said. “I owe a lot to the Heart Association and it’s my turn to give back.”
The 5K Heart Walk begins at 10 a.m. Anyone interested in joining Christensen’s “All Heart” team, or supporting the team with a donation, can visit the team website.