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by Brenna Fender


This Agility Competitor Has Heart!

By Brenna Fender

Shannon Kelly knew that her grandmother died from heart problems at the young age of 47, presumably because she was a smoker. But when Shannon’s mom, Vicki Rhoades, became ill at age 42, the truth came out: she had hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, an inherited heart disease. Tests revealed the frightening fact that then 18-year-old Shannon had it too.

Vicki was relatively healthy until she needed a heart transplant in her 40s, but Shannon was affected by the disease in her late teens. By her mid-30s she was unable to complete a flight of stairs without stopping to rest. Her heart was failing, and that led to her transplant surgery in 2006 at age 36. Shannon emerged from the difficult surgery (and a follow up surgery as well) a new woman, and has launched into an athletic lifestyle filled with exercise and dog agility.

Shannon lives in Yonkers, New York with her husband of 12 years, Lawrence Kelly, and three dogs: a six-and-a-half-year-old Vizsla named Chester MAD, TM-B, a four-and-a-half-year-old Border Collie named ADCH Bean TM-B, and two-year-old Ginger, also a BC. Shannon is the Director of Marketing Department at Palisade Corporation, a software company based in Ithaca, New York. Shannon shared with Clean Run her experiences and how agility has actually helped her other athletic endeavors.

Brenna Fender (BF): When did you get started in agility?

Shannon Kelly (SK): In 2004, Larry and I got Chester as a puppy and started taking him to basic obedience and breed handling classes. We enjoyed training, and were introduced to the clicker and operant conditioning. The instructor suggested that Larry and Chester take agility classes, which we had never heard of. Chester loved everything about agility, and was fast and a natural on the weave poles.

Larry is athletic, so he is able to keep up with a Vizsla running at top speed around the course, but with my heart disease, sometimes I could barely walk across a parking lot. We started going to agility trials and I loved to watch, but everything was a struggle because I was weak and would get out of breath with any exertion. I remember planning trips across the fields to get something to eat or go to the bathroom, because I had to save my energy.

Even though I was slow and weak, one of Larry’s agility instructors (Kim Seiter) encouraged me to get my own dog, and train her to run at a distance. We got Bean in the fall of 2005, not knowing that my heart would give out in the coming spring.

We were at the Clicker Expo in Rhode Island in April 2006. Bean was a six-month-old Border Collie pup bouncing around at the end of the leash and I could barely keep hold. My heart was dying. I had congestive heart failure and my heart was so weak that it couldn’t keep the blood flowing, causing my lungs to fill with water. I spent the weekend in the hotel room thinking I had the flu, but as we were driving home I realized that I needed to go to the hospital. When we got to the ER, Larry had to get a wheelchair to bring me in.

At that point, Bean’s agility training was suspended. I spent a week at the ICU, where I received a pic IV line in my arm to deliver a stimulant directly to my heart to keep it going while I waited on the transplant list. I was able to go home and wait. We were told that it might be as long as a year and a half, but we knew that maybe I would never receive a new heart.

I was only on the list for a month when I got the call that there was a heart for me. I was 36 at the time, and my donor was a 17-year-old boy. I don’t know anything else about him or his family. Recipients are able to write anonymous letters that can be passed along to the donor family, if the family wishes. I wrote a letter but I don’t know if they received it.

The first year of recovery was very difficult and I had a couple of big set-backs, including a second open-heart surgery. Luckily Larry and I were thoroughly hooked on agility by then. Getting back to classes with friends and anticipating training and being able to run with my dog were sometimes the only things I looked forward to during difficult times. We already had a subscription to Clean Run, and I often took it to the hospital to study the course maps while I waited for procedures and doctor’s appointments.

BF: Does the transplant completely eradicate hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, so it's not an issue that will affect you again?

SK: Yes, but while I no longer have my original heart disease, transplant recipients have to deal with a new set of potential complications. To keep my body from rejecting the transplanted heart, I will take immunosuppression drugs each day for the rest of my life. These drugs make me more susceptible to infections and illnesses, so I have to be careful to take precautions, such as washing my hands and avoiding people with colds. The drugs also have side effects; they are tough on the kidneys and liver and cause bone loss and cancer. I visit my transplant cardiologist every three months to make sure my body is not rejecting my new heart. If anything is going wrong, the medications are adjusted.

My heart disease is inherited; my mother and grandmother also had cardiomyopathy. My grandmother died at age 47, when I was one year old. At that point, there was nothing the doctors could do for her. With my mom, we were more fortunate, and she received a new heart at age 47.

My mom is an optimistic and generous person. When she had to face a heart transplant, our family didn’t know what to expect, and it was very scary. My mom went through the whole process with grace. She wanted to live, but she also wanted to show me that it could be done, because she knew I would face it one day. She has had her “new” heart for 16 years now.

BF: How has having the transplant affected your agility experiences physically?

SK: Receiving the gift of a new heart is a miracle. A week after the surgery, I was able to go up eight flights of stairs in the hospital with Larry, when previously I couldn’t go up half a flight without stopping to catch my breath. I went to physical therapy to start to get in shape. I had no muscle tone in my body from 20 years of inactivity. While the other beginner students were figuring out how to do a front cross, I was doing the same, while also figuring out how to run for the first time since I was a child.

It took me a year to feel comfortable in my body and gain physical confidence. I was lucky because Bean was fairly easy to train and run, for a first agility dog. She’s a hard worker and she’s very athletic, so she inspired me to work hard as well.

Our instructor, Kim Seiter, was also instrumental for me. When I became frustrated, she would remind me that it’s not easy to learn how to move in agility, and I had come further than most people ever had to.

BF: What about your mental game? I would think that having battled such a serious illness might give you a different outlook toward the sport of agility.

SK: The first time Bean and I stepped on the line, I was as nervous as anyone. I knew we were well prepared, but my stomach was flipping like any newbie. We completed the course correctly, but I led out too far before getting the “Go,” so the judge had to disqualify us. I honestly didn’t care. It was a miserable, rainy, cold windy day, but my parents and Larry and friends were there, and I was so happy to be able to play.

Every minute of my life since May 12, 2006 is a bonus for me. Of course I get frustrated just like anyone, but it still amazes me that I’m able to run, after 20 years of my heart not working.

Knowing that I am a survivor gives me confidence, but so does the experience I gained from competing in agility. It has helped me to go on to other things. After a season in agility, learning how to get on the line and calm my nerves and then think on my feet, I started to consider competing in other sports. I went back to playing tennis, which I had last played as a teenager, and competed at the Transplant Games in the summer of 2008. Then, a friend told me about triathlons. I set a goal to complete a triathlon in August 2009.

I participated in a Trek Women’s Triathlon. The organizers are an amazing group of women who are dedicated to helping women become athletes. The “Chief Inspiration Officer” is Sally Edwards, a Hall of Fame triathlete who brings up the tail of every race, so no one else has to be the last person in. On the morning of the race, the organizers introduced me to the crowd and had me start on the front line with the seasoned competitors. Everyone encouraged each other to keep going throughout the race. It was a great day.

Often while I was training and worrying about the day of the triathlon, I would think about the experience I had gained in the agility ring as a competitor. I felt prepared and I knew I would have a sense of accomplishment just finishing, no matter how well I did. This is a lesson we often learn in agility! In the end, I placed 92 out of 185, and I was very, very happy to be in the middle of the pack!

BF: Will you do more triathlons or other races?

SK: I am part of a relay team called Team Donate Life that is competing in the NYC Triathlon at the end of July. I’m going to do the running leg, which is six miles through Central Park. My teammate, John Acquaro, who is also a heart recipient, will do the bike leg.

In August, I’m competing in the Transplant Games in Madison, Wisconsin. I’ll probably do the virtual triathlon (the running, swimming, and biking events are held at separate times and the scores are combined).

BF: What are your future athletic goals?

SK: Mainly I want to stay fit. With my health, there are things that I don’t have control over, but I need to do my part and maintain fitness. Receiving a new heart is an incredible gift and it’s my responsibility to take care of it now.

BF: What agility goals do you have?

SK: In 2009, I set a goal to win first place in a USDAA Masters event with Bean. I quickly realized what a misguided goal that was for us when I became frustrated with our runs. I went back to focusing on basics and just getting through a course with teamwork and calmness. By the end of the season, Bean had won first in Grand Prix, Steeplechase, Jumpers, and Snooker. We finished her ADCH in October, which made me very happy. She is a great dog and I plan to just enjoy running with her now, trying to put in good runs.

Larry has two agility dogs, so it is my turn [to get a new dog] next. I’m keeping my eyes open and hope to be training a second dog within the next year.

BF: Do you have anything else you would like to share with readers?

SK: Like many people who go through big life events with their agility friends, I have had a lot of support. I’m so grateful to all our friends and to the sport of agility for giving us an escape! Many agility friends have become organ donors when they learned of my story, and that means a lot to me. One friend even had me sign her license at a trial!

Please be an organ donor—it saves lives!