February 18, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

For many avid runners, qualifying for the Boston Marathon is considered the pinnacle of their running career. For 35-year-old Jodi Saso, completing the Boston Marathon was that and so much more.

Not only did it mark a major feat in her running career, but Saso crossed the finish line just 10 weeks after undergoing major heart surgery. Completing the marathon was a personal confirmation that she had risen above her heart condition and could continue “life as usual,” despite this unexpected setback.

“I didn’t want to be a victim of my circumstances and lay around feeling sorry for myself,” says Saso. “It was all about determination and not wanting to live that life. I figured I had one shot to do this, and I wasn’t going to let my surgery get in the way.”

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This is all even more amazing when you consider the fact that Saso had taken up running just several years ago when she decided she need to do something to get herself and her dog into shape. The pounds began to fall off, running became easier, and it wasn’t long before Saso had developed a new passion.

Saso found running to be a natural fit, and before long, she had started training for marathons. By 2012, she had run eight marathons in one year in addition to several half marathons and a 50-mile run. She was hooked and breaking her own records with each race. Saso felt wonderful physically and emotionally.

But an annual check-up with her doctor told her otherwise.

When Saso was very young, her pediatrician suspected that she might have Marfan syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that affects the connective tissue. The most serious complications of Marfan are defects of the heart valve and aorta. However, Saso never received a firm diagnosis. When she began seeing a new family practitioner in her late 20s, he too suspected Marfan syndrome and recommended they monitor her heart on a regular basis. A heart echo performed at her 2012 visit revealed an aortic aneurysm—a stretched and bulging section in the wall of the aorta.

“When the aorta becomes stretched, there is a big risk of the aorta dissecting or tearing or, even worse, rupturing and causing death,” says Traci Jurrens, MD, cardiologist at Nebraska Methodist Hospital, who performed the echocardiogram. “Jodi’s aorta had reached the threshold for repair.”

Because of the difficulty of the procedure, most cardiac surgeons replace both the valve and aorta during surgery, which requires lifelong anticoagulation with the blood-thinning drug called Coumadin, explains Dr. Jurrens. Coumadin can have a host of side effects, including easy bruising and bleeding.

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“Since she was so young, we determined that it would be worthwhile for Saso to go to the Mayo Clinic, where cardiac surgeons were able to perform the surgery without removing her own valve,” notes Dr. Jurrens.

Saso’s surgery was scheduled for Jan. 31, 2013. The timing could not have been worse. She had qualified for the Boston Marathon the spring before. The run was scheduled for April 15, just 10 weeks after her surgery. It was a dream she was not willing to let go so easily. “I asked my doctors if there was any way that I could still run the race,” she says. “They were doubtful, but they said it was contingent upon how the surgery and recovery went.”

Following surgery, Saso says she was in so much pain that she thought she would never leave the hospital. “Before I left the hospital, they told me that I had to walk the entire floor six times a day,” she says. “That first day, I could barely walk 10 feet.”

But that’s when Saso’s determination kicked in. “My goal was to run the Boston, and I was going to do everything I could to make that happen.” By day three, she was off pain medications. By day five, she was doing two laps instead of one six times a day and was released from the hospital to go home.

Encouraged by her quick recovery, Saso was on a fast track from then on, she says. By two weeks, Dr. Jurrens had released Saso to return to work. Four weeks after surgery, Saso finished an entire stress test—Dr. Jurrens’ first patient to do that. Jurrens cleared her to run the Boston as long as she promised to run it over four hours.

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Donning a T-shirt that read, “I had open heart surgery 10 weeks ago. Let’s do this!” Saso proudly crossed the finish line in 4:08:15.

“I felt amazing,” she says. Luck continued to be on Saso’s side. Having mistakenly booked her return flight extremely close to the race finish time, she had no time to hang out and celebrate. Instead, she left the race immediately to catch her flight. A short time later, she heard about the 2013 Boston bombings. “Someone was looking over me,” she says.

“Jodi has done remarkably,” says Dr. Jurrens. “It is quite a difficult procedure, but Jodi had excellent results. Because Jodi was in such great shape, she was able to get through surgery very well. In general, great functional capacity prior to surgery predicts better recovery from cardiac surgery. That being said, we really do not know what is safe for Jodi in regard to running, and we do discourage excessive exercise. But running is Jodi’s life, and she is going to make her own decision in regard to running.”

Saso completed five marathons in 2013 but says she is planning to slow down the pace for her own health benefits. “I’m going to do just two marathons a year in the future,” she says. “I want to be smart about this, and I really don’t want to have surgery again.”

The pace may be slower, but her determination to live life as usual is stronger than ever, says Saso. She recites one of her favorite quotes, which she says she applies both to running and life: “The body does not want you to do this. As you run, it tells you to stop, but the mind must be strong. You can always go too far for your body. You must handle the pain with strategy…it is not age. It is not diet. It is the will to succeed. Let’s do this!”