In 2004, long distance mountain bike racer Todd Hatfield passed out while driving.
Hatfield, then 29, was on the move for a few seconds and fell into a driveway in a residential area in Jacksonville. He was scraped off but quickly got together and rode the few miles to his house.
A year earlier he was diagnosed with a heart murmur, but was told it was “not necessarily a big deal” or a sign of heart disease and that he did not need treatment. So he considered himself the epitome of fitness. Until he passed out.
“I was scared … because I had no idea what might have caused it,” he said. “I would never have thought I’d have heart problems in a million years, especially with the number of sports I’ve played, how active I’ve been and how well I’ve taken care of myself.”
But Hatfield was wrong. He was later diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a thickening of the heart muscle that can make it difficult for the heart to pump blood.
East Arlington, now 45, is a heart disease survivor and an attorney for the American Heart Association. The non-profit organization observes February as the heart month to raise awareness about heart disease. Friday is also the association’s Wear Red and Give Day to raise awareness of heart disease and stroke in women.
“Heart disease remains the leading killer of men and women,” said Amber Wilson, executive director of the American Heart Association’s First Coast Chapter. “More than 125 million people, or about 50 percent of all adults in the US, have cardiovascular disease. The good news is that an estimated 80 percent of cardiovascular disease, including heart disease and stroke, is caused by lifestyle changes such as diet avoidable, exercise and quit smoking. “
Hatfield said he is an example of how an otherwise healthy person can have heart disease – but also overcome heart disease.
“There have been some tough times but one of my strengths is overcoming adversity. I’m sure I can handle endurance racing well. I don’t stop until I’m done, no matter how annoying it is,” said Hatfield. “I’m glad I didn’t let myself be defeated.”
He is also an attorney for the Ironheart Foundation, an organization that brings cardiac patients together to regain healthy lifestyles through exercise.
“It helps to know that other people who may have had worse than you or learn how they dealt with it thrive,” he said.
At first Hatfield was not getting on well himself.
After the 2004 fainting spell, the doctor who diagnosed his heart murmur and the specialists he was referred to suspected that he had hypertrophic cardiomyopathy and administered medication to him.
“I started dealing with anxiety and panic attacks without knowing what was wrong with my heart or thinking it could stop anytime. The whole ordeal was so stressful,” he said. “I now know that I could very easily have died of sudden cardiac arrest.”
Eventually his heart stabilized and he resumed cycling – until he got into trouble during an eight-hour long distance race in Gainesville.
“As the race progressed, I felt weaker, a little dizzy and disoriented,” he said. “I had never felt this way in a race. It felt like my body was shutting down. In hindsight, I was either dehydrated or … possibly had too much potassium in my system.
“But in my mind the problems were completely connected to my heart,” he said.
The Mayo Clinic later ran a “full battery of tests,” confirmed its doctors’ suspicions in 2004, and recommended an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator.
Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy “often goes undiagnosed because many people with the disease have few, if any, symptoms,” Mayo said. In some people, however, the disease can “cause shortness of breath, chest pain, or problems in the heart’s electrical system, leading to life-threatening arrhythmias or sudden death.”
Hatfield has been ordered to stop all racing and training.
“I was devastated,” he said. “Racing bikes had become something of my identity.”
Hatfield and his wife began playing golf and he extended his college studies. He had just received an associate’s degree from Florida State College, Jacksonville and later a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of North Florida.
In the meantime, his doctors tried to convince him to get the defibrillator, a small battery-operated device in his chest that monitors the heart rhythm, detects irregular heartbeats, and, according to Mayo, can deliver electric shocks to correct an abnormal rhythm.
Hatfield finally agreed in 2011.
“I need as much information as possible before I can make decisions. I was concerned about all the ‘what-if’ that might come with it,” he said. “I wasn’t entirely convinced I needed it either. I was sure my heart was fat because I had an ‘athlete’s heart’.
“Mayo was so great at working through these things with me and agreed to do all of the testing after being inactive for a long time to rest my heart and see if anything would change,” said he. “The tests showed that … the walls of my left ventricle and septum were thicker and there were scars in my heart.”
The final impetus was that his daughter Riley should be born in December 2011. He had the device implanted in September 2011.
Hatfield slowly rebuilt his life with the help of Mrs. Char, Riley, 9, son Caleb, 7, and Avery, his daughter from a previous marriage who is a junior from the University of Central Florida studying preclinical health science.
In 2015, he became a project manager at Mayo after having worked for a local manufacturing company for 15 years and previously with the Navy for six years. He coaches baseball and basketball in the Little League, and helps his kids with flag football, mountain bike racing, and BMX racing.
He started exercising again and easily running and riding and eventually increased his riding and racing. For the past five years he has covered an average of 6,000 miles and 12 races per year.
“It was great to be able to drive again,” said Hatfield. “Being on a bike, disappearing from everyone and getting lost in your own thoughts, maintaining a very high level of fitness, lining up and mastering all the battles of a bike race is such a charge. It is therapy and a huge sense of achievement … and to stay ahead of the curve when crossing a finish line there aren’t many similar feelings, especially when you’ve taken it all away and been told that outside of that you would never be able to be physically competitive again Golf.”
In 2019, he completed the Pisgah Stage Race in North Carolina’s Pisgah National Forest, a 5-day race that spanned 150 off-road miles and included approximately 20,000 feet of climbing.
“It was an emotional experience,” said Hatfield. “I could only think that I did, I really did. I shouldn’t be here, but I just did it.” Not many people sign up for races like this, and not all of the people who finish the race, and probably nobody does it with a ‘bad heart’. “
As for his defibrillator, “I honestly forget he’s there most of the time,” he said. “I know it’s just a great insurance policy.”
Beth Reese Cravey: [email protected]
AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION
To donate, for more information about heart disease risk factors and symptoms, and to learn more about Heart Month and Wear Red Day, visit heart.org. The first coastal chapter is located at 7751 E. Baymeadows Road, Suite 106F, Jacksonville, FL 32256; (904) 903-5205; [email protected]; and heart.org/en/affiliates/florida/first-coast.
For more information, email [email protected] or go to ironheartfoundation.org.