Cardiac Arrest Unexpected in One So Young

Local TV reporter Susan Koeppen was in good shape back in 2011. Although her doctor had diagnosed her with exercise-induced asthma, the 39-year-old had an inhaler and she was training for her first Pittsburgh half marathon.

But on a quick two-mile run through Shadyside with two of her closest friends, Susan collapsed. Within minutes, two University of Pittsburgh medical students who were driving by on Negley Avenue stopped to administer CPR. The fire department arrived and administered an AED on the scene. None of it seemed to make a difference. She was unresponsive.

Susan Koeppen

At the hospital, doctors cooled her body via therapeutic hypothermia to ease the stress on her brain. She was asleep for days, and she didn’t learn what happened until she woke up. “I opened my eyes and looked around, and I didn’t know where I was. I saw my parents, and I saw people in the room. All of a sudden, people started running over, and I thought, “Oh, boy, something big must have happened because my parents are here.”


Something big had happened. At 39, they told her, she suffered cardiac arrest.

Problems Across America

Although Susan Koeppen was young, her story isn’t unique among American women. In fact, heart disease is the No. 1 killer among women in the U.S, accounting for about a quarter of female deaths, according to the CDC. What’s even more alarming is that two-thirds of people died from coronary heart disease showed no previous warning signs.

Despite improved awareness about heart disease, it’s still prevalent. About a third of U.S. women have some form of cardiovascular disease, the American Heart Association reports. Compounding the problem: High blood pressure, high LDL cholesterol, and smoking are all key risk factors for heart disease, but about half of the U.S. population exhibits at least one of them, the CDC says.

Looking back, Koeppen realizes she had exhibited all of the classic warning signs for heart failure: She was coughing, winded, tired, and constantly clearing her throat—especially during exercise. Although she and her doctor both knew she had a mitral valve prolapse—an improper closure of the valve between the heart’s upper and lower left chambers—exercise-induced asthma seemed like a sound diagnosis. She was young, her symptoms came on when she exercised, and all of the doctors in her family—of which there are many—didn’t think anything of it. So Koeppen picked up her inhaler and kept training.

The fact that she’s still alive is remarkable. Nearly 90% of people who suffer cardiac arrest outside of a hospital die. After she recovered in the hospital, she received open-heart surgery in March 2012 to repair her mitral valve, a procedure that took her two months to recover from.

Still, it didn’t slow her down. A year later, she ran her first Pittsburgh half marathon. In addition to her day job as a TV journalist, she’s also become a spokesperson for the Sudden Cardiac Arrest Foundation and a board member for the American Heart Association. Koeppen also found time to launch Pocket Heart Tees, a clothing company that includes CPR instructions with every shirt.

All in all, Koeppen was lucky. Today, the only residual side effect she experiences is slight memory loss. When she’s in the middle of a conversation, she sometimes forgets certain words—like “pencil,” for example—or she’ll think of a comment and forget it if she doesn’t speak up right away. Still, it’s a small price to pay when her life was on the line a few years ago.

Whenever Koeppen speaks before a crowd, she tries to emphasize the importance of awareness. “I tell women, ‘Start talking to your doctor and start thinking about your heart when you’re in your 30s and certainly when you’re entering your 40s. Make sure you understand and know the symptoms of a heart attack or heart failure.’”

Hope From Magee

At Magee, researchers are hard at work connecting the dots between pregnancy complications, such as preeclampsia and gestational diabetes and later encounters with heart disease. Last year, Dr. Janet Catov and her colleagues received a 4-year $3.7 million grant from the American Heart Association. Their goal: Examine if and how pregnancy-related blood vessel changes can identify risks of cardiovascular disease and help identify new interventions. If the Magee researchers manage to find a link between small vessel impairment during pregnancy and later cardiovascular health, they may be able to identify high-risk groups of women.

Magee is also currently accepting applications to its “Go Red” Multi-Disciplinary Research Fellowship, an endeavour that trains MDs and PhDs in the impact of pregnancy and pregnancy outcomes on heart health. Magee is one of five centers comprising the American Heart Association Go Red for Women Research Network, closely connecting it with Columbia University, Johns Hopkins University, New York University, and the University of California San Diego.

Due to Magee’s efforts, we’re getting closer to understanding women’s heart health through the lens of pregnancy, ensuring mothers live long, healthy lives to watch their babies develop into healthy, mature adults.

But Magee’s efforts don’t stop there. Researchers like Dr. Yaacov Barak have thrust themselves into related topics, like obesity, which are major contributors to heart disease. By finding reliable, long-term solutions to heart disease contributors, we may one day cut the chances of anyone dealing with the disease in the future.

Empower Research, Save Lives

Much of MWRI’s research efforts are donation-funded. Celebrate Heart Month and continue the progress sparked at Magee by donating today. Remember: Regardless of whether a donation is large or small, it goes a long way toward empowering our researchers to investigate further.