PA Olivia Bell Celebrated the 25th Anniversary of Her Open-Heart Surgery by Running the New York City Marathon

“Twenty-five years is a big deal. It’s a quarter century with my fixed heart.”

December 12, 2023

By Jennifer Walker

In November, Bell ran the New York City Marathon to celebrate the 25th anniversary of her open-heart surgery.

On November 5, 2023, Olivia Bell, PA-C, MPH, celebrated the 25th anniversary of her open-heart surgery in a big way: She ran the 26.2-mile TCS New York City Marathon. This was a huge accomplishment given challenges Bell had in her early childhood. In 1998, seven-year-old Bell was skinny and often tired, and she would get winded easily. “I remember it feeling torturous to run during recess,” she said. “I would do tennis drills then want to go to bed at 6:00 p.m. But there were no major signs that something was wrong other than me being tired.”

That year, Bell went to her physician’s office with her mother for strep throat, and her pediatrician noticed a murmur when he listened to her heart. Soon after, Bell was diagnosed with an atrial septal defect (ASD), one of the most common types of congenital heart defects. ASDs are characterized by a hole between the top two chambers of the heart, which, if large enough, can damage the heart and lungs over time.

“My 8th birthday was my diagnosis day,” said Bell, now an emergency medicine PA with Ochsner Health in the Greater New Orleans area. “I was happy as a clam at my birthday party, but I don’t think I understood exactly what was going on, that this was something that was going to need to be fixed surgically.”

Bell had to have open-heart surgery. Her grandfather, an orthopaedic surgeon, had heard about video-assisted thoracic surgery, a new procedure for open-heart surgery that involved sewing a patch over the hole in the heart through a smaller incision as opposed to cutting the breastbone. This surgery method would lead to faster recovery time and minimal scarring. On August 4, 1998, Bell became the first person at Joe DiMaggio Children’s Center in Hollywood, Florida, to have this new method of open-heart surgery. Her story was covered in the Palm Beach Post.

“I’m kind of a product of an innovative heart surgery,” said Bell. Her open-heat surgery story was covered in the Palm Beach Post in 1998.

“After my surgery, I grew a ton in one year, and I put on weight, and everything just became easier,” said Bell. “I’m grateful that my heart repair allowed me to have a normal childhood.”

To commemorate the 25th anniversary of the surgery, Bell decided she wanted to run the TCS New York City Marathon. She applied to be a charity runner on the team with The Children’s Heart Foundation, one of the marathon’s 570 official charity partners. This gave her entry into the race, which only accepted about five percent of registered, non-charity runners this year. The Children’s Heart Foundation was an ideal partner given Bell’s motivation for running.

“Twenty-five years is a big deal. It’s a quarter century with my fixed heart,” said Bell. “The Children’s Heart Foundation is funding amazing projects and innovations, and I’m a product of an innovative heart surgery myself. I thought it would be awesome to celebrate my anniversary and run for those kids who have congenital heart defects [and] aren’t able to run.”

A YouTube Video Leads to a PA Career
Bell received her MPH in program design and implementation of global health systems from the Tulane School of Public Health in New Orleans, Louisiana. Wanting to work in the communities she was serving, Bell went to Zambia in 2014 for a six-week consultancy. There, she said, “It was like seeing everything from my textbook and everything I had learned in school in real life.”

Bell watches a member of her surgical team sign a stuffed puppy that she received after her open-heart surgery at Joe DiMaggio Children’s Center in 1998.

In Zambia, Bell saw a need for consultants to be liaisons between international NGOs and Zambian health staff who were working together on projects centering on women’s health, early childhood nutrition, HIV, malaria, and neglected tropical diseases. Bell started a company that allowed her to be that consultant, and she stayed in Zambia for more than six years.

But around her 30th birthday, Bell realized she felt most energized and impactful when she was working directly with people in clinics. This is when Bell—who had originally intended to be pre-med or pre-PA as an undergraduate—saw the YouTube video in which a husband, who is an MD, and a wife, who is a PA, are talking about their careers. “I became more and more interested in going the PA route,” Bell said. “I liked that being a PA would allow my career to grow and change with me as my life grows and changes.”

Bell graduated from the­ Xavier University of Louisiana PA Program earlier this year. At Ochsner Health, she works in three emergency departments on the outskirts of New Orleans, including a freestanding ED in a rural area; a larger ED attached to a hospital; and a third ED that falls somewhere in between in terms of size and services. With these different environments, she has the variety she was seeking in her PA career.

Running the New York City Marathon
Bell took up running in 2020, during the interim between her return from Zambia and the start of her PA program. Her first race was a 5K benefiting Heart N Hands, a nonprofit organization based in New Orleans that focuses on educating girls about heart health and heart disease prevention. “I had never done anything like that in my life, and I loved it,” she said.

Bell continued to run as a PA student, signing up for a longer race, the Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon in New Orleans, in 2021. “That half marathon gave me something to be accountable for outside of studying. It was really great to step away from the books and take some time for me,” she said. “But after I ran it, I remember thinking that running that distance twice was so outside of my realm of what I thought was possible.”

Bell spent more than six years in Zambia, Africa, working in public health before transitioning to a PA career.

Then, this past spring, Bell joined The 504th, a New Orleans-based running club that is part of Bridge the Gap, a global running group that aims to make running more accessible for everyone. There, she saw many people who were training for marathons. This made her think she could do a marathon, too.

Bell trained for the New York City Marathon using the 16-week program on the Nike Run Club app, which provides audio coaching and themed runs. Bell stretched this program to 20 weeks in case of illness or injury. Despite record-breaking heat in New Orleans this past summer, she stuck to the weekly schedule of one long run, one speed run, and two recovery runs. She also did some hill training in her relatively-flat city by running up and down a highway overpass, and she did strength training at the gym on her off days.

On race day, Bell’s goal was to run the entire marathon without taking walking breaks at about 12:00 minutes per mile—a goal she accomplished with a friend from The 504th. The marathon took her through the five boroughs of New York City, starting in Staten Island, where runners made their way across the Verrazano Bridge into Brooklyn. She continued the course through Queens, Manhattan, and the Bronx before finishing in Central Park.

“The whole marathon was like Mardi Gras for runners,” Bell said. “I was nervous in the starting corral, just feeling like I had a mountain ahead of me. But there were people out there with pots and pans and spatulas making noise. Kids were handing out candy, and people were handing out shot glasses with pickle juice and sliced pickles. Coming over the Queensborough Bridge and hearing that roar in Manhattan was amazing. Being in Harlem, there was such energy. I kept waiting to feel like I’d hit a wall, but I didn’t.”

Bell finished the New York City Marathon on November 5, 2023

As a member of a charity team, Bell also had to raise $3,500 for The Children’s Heart Foundation. She did a “Sponsor a Mile” initiative in which people who donated between $1 and $26 could sponsor the corresponding mile, and everyone who contributed more than $26 were “Beyond the Finish Line” donors. “Every mile was sponsored by multiple people,” Bell said. “I made a map of the course and wrote out people’s names for each mile, and on the run, I really thought about those people.”

This strategy was particularly helpful on mile 11, part of a four-mile stretch that crosses through Williamsburg and Greenpoint in Brooklyn, a challenging section of the race for Bell. Then, she thought about one of her childhood friends, who said that she was sponsoring mile 11 because her and Bell were best friends when they were 11. “That really carried me through,” Bell said.

Although Bell had an amazing experience, it did have a bittersweet ending. Her family and friends came to New York to watch the race. Her parents, sister, boyfriend, and friends cheered her on at three different spots along the route. Afterward, Bell and her family planned to go to dinner to celebrate. But on the walk there, her father went into cardiac arrest; later, in the emergency department, he passed away. This tragedy has shaped Bell’s view of her marathon experience and influenced her future running goals.

“I may not do another marathon because I felt like I had the perfect race,” she said. “My dad was there. He saw me run and he was such a champ and he went all over town. We celebrated afterward. And I feel honored that he spent the last hours of his 80 years on this Earth watching me run. I don’t know that I would want to have any other experience.”

Jennifer Walker is a freelance writer in Baltimore, MD. Contact Jennifer at [email protected].

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