Doctors: Youngest NC woman in US to have rare heart surgery

For three years, Mooresville motocross, football, hunting and outdoor fishing enthusiast Kristiana Rigney couldn’t catch her breath after the slightest movement.

She couldn’t sleep either, as her heart was beating at 180 to 190 beats per minute, about the average heart rate of world-class runners in a marathon.

The normal resting heart rate for someone 18 or older is 60 to 100 beats per minute. Rigney’s rare disease affects only around 100 people in the country as of January, doctors told him.

So 20-year-old Rigney had to put off college and her pursuit of a veterinary career at a zoo, and quit the outdoor activities she had always loved. Her mother was desperate for answers, a journey that took her to Overland Park Regional Medical Center in Kansas.

It was there that she would become the youngest person in the country to undergo pioneering surgery to deal with a rapidly beating heart condition. The operation took place on April 21.

OUT OF BREATH

Rigney’s heart condition began to show up as she recovered from the last of three hip surgeries she had had since she was 14.

She couldn’t play with her black lab, Cash — short for Johnny Cash — and her family’s black lab, Rocky — short for Rocky Balboa. And she couldn’t take care of the family’s beloved beta fish, Blueberry and Dumbo.

In October, she tried to ride her Kawaski KLX G dirt bike on the trail she and her family blazed on their five wooded acres, but quickly ran out of steam. The bike is waiting for her in the garage to start again – a day she feared would never come.

MOM’S HELP SEARCH

Kristiana’s mother, Jennifer Rigney, searched tirelessly for a doctor who could help her and visited one in North Carolina, Tennessee and Minnesota.

During a visit to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, a doctor told her that nothing more could be done for her daughter than the many medications she was taking, Jennifer Rigney said.

But the doctor mentioned a research study that showed good results from a rare type of heart surgery used in Europe but not approved by the FDA.

FIND THE STUDY, AND THE DOCTOR

Back home in Mooresville, Jennifer Rigney scoured medical journals and found the study in Heart Rhythm, the journal of the Heart Rhythm Society. She contacted the study’s lead researcher, Dr Dhanunjaya Lakkireddy.

Lakkireddy is a cardiologist and executive medical director of the Kansas City Heart Rhythm Institute at HCA Midwest Health in Overland Park, Kansas. He and another cardiologist agreed to perform the operation on Kristiana.

“I thought she was going to be with this forever,” Jennifer Rigney told The Charlotte Observer. “But a mother will do anything to keep her children safe.”

SURGERY

The two-hour surgery involved doctors using a long, stick-shaped device burning away errant blood vessels that were causing the heart to beat rapidly, Kristiana Rigney told the Charlotte Observer.

It was a success. His heart rate had returned to normal.

She was released on April 29 and returned home with her mother last week.

The hospital highlighted Kristiana Rigney’s health journey in a May 3 post on its website and featured her and her surgeons at a press conference. The Kansas City Star and local television stations featured her remarkable comeback.

“These doctors are my heroes,” Kristiana Rigney said in the post on the hospital’s website. “Nurses are my angels from heaven. I have so much left to live and I am grateful to everyone in this hospital who helped me live again.

She felt, she later told the Observer, that she had been “given new life.”

PROJECTS FOR THE FUTURE

Rigney now faces six months of recovery. She plans to resume her first-year zoology studies at Oregon State University’s ECampus in the fall and add the martial art jiu-jitsu to her list of activities. She also plays guitar and piano.

And she guarantees what she will do at the end of her six-month recovery: she goes into the garage and spins that bike.