Kansas City woman says being a walker helped save her life in health crisis

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Wednesday is National Walking Day. The American Heart Association wants you to get moving today and every day. A Kansas City woman thinks that being fit from walking helped save her life when a rare condition struck her.

Victoria Lewellen walks briskly and confidently with her poodle, Mickey. It's hard to imagine the 43-year-old wife and mother nearly died a little over a year ago. While driving, Lewellen thought she was having a panic attack.

"Just my whole body froze and I had a ton of chest pain. I couldn't breathe," Lewellen said.

The pain intensified. Her husband took her to the emergency room at Saint Luke's Hospital. She said she was there more than 12 hours before doctors discovered an aortic dissection. She had a tear in the lining of the aorta, the main artery from the heart.

"And the normal blood coming out from the heart starting filling in that tear and obstructing the true opening of the artery," Dr. Tracy Stevens, a cardiologist, said.

The aorta could rupture at any moment. Organs could shut down from lack of blood. Lewellen recalled telling the surgeon she didn't want surgery.

"He said, 'You don't understand. This is fatal. You will die from this if you don't get this fixed'," she said.

There were high risks with the operation, too.

"Because I was so physically active going into my surgery, that really helped save my life," Lewellen said.

"The rest of her healthy body kicked in and pulled her through this," Dr. Stevens said.

Lewellen had been a walker and a tennis player before, and she is again. In rehabilitation, she started with a six-minute walk that seemed like a marathon.

"Every day, I just tried to do more than I did the day before," she said.

Now she walks between 20 minutes and an hour every day.

"I have to take care of myself or I can't take care of anyone else," she said.

She walks for exercise and enjoyment.

"I appreciate every day," she added.

Lewellen knows it was all almost taken away one day last year.

So why did the lining of the aorta tear? Lewellen was born with a heart valve defect that can make the aorta prone to weakening and tearing. She knew she had the defect, but said no one when she was young had really stressed to her the risk that came with it.