Angie Mikkelson was born in Kalispell, Mont. and very well may have been put in the saddle immediately, and still boasts that she has the energy and pep of a young soul.
Living in Reeder, N.D., where her free spirit allows her to enjoy outdoor recreations, she participates in triathlons, foot races, long distance endurance horse rides and weekend long bike rides. To her there is a unique joy in pushing herself to the limits, beyond the scope of most people — but her special journey becomes all the more inspiring when you hear her share her story.
“I used to think it was a big deal if I could get on the treadmill and jog at five miles an hour for two miles,” said Mikkelson. “I enjoyed it. It was one of those things that I wasn't able to do before, so it was amazing.”
Mikkelson splits her time between being an avid outdoor recreationist and endurance athlete with donning her hat as a Lifesource Ambassador. Born with endocardial fibroelastosis that she says took all control away from her, but never crushed her spirit.
“It's scary not being in control of your life,” Mikkelson said. “I can exercise, eat good, take care of myself, but it could all come tumbling down and end in a blink of an eye.”
First diagnosed at the University of Washington as an infant, she has dealt with hardships since the very beginning.
“I was diagnosed with a disease that would make my heart non-flexible and unable to pump blood,” Mikkelson said. “The doctors didn't expect me to live past the age of four, and they sent me home with my mom and dad to see what happened.”
Mikkelson shared the story of how her mother took the bleak diagnosis very hard, even finding it too difficult to return to the University of Washington.
“My dad was the one that brought me to the clinic all the time,” Mikkelson said. “My mom said that she couldn't handle being told that cold diagnoses again.”
Mikkelson’s heart continued to grow as she did, increasing the dangers and acting as a ticking clock marking the weeks, days, hours and seconds as she approached what doctors said was an inevitable conclusion — death.
“They continued to monitor me as the years went on,” Mikkelson said. “The disease wasn't progressing like they thought it would have... my heart was becoming enlarged to the point where it was almost the size of my entire chest cavity.”
At 16, she and her mother moved to Fargo N.D. It was there that her first visit to a cardiologist came outside the walls of the University of Washington.
The cardiologist conducted a series of tests, and recommended her to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. His prognosis was that Mikkelson had been misdiagnosed.
“He said, ‘I don't think this is an accurate diagnosis.’ So they sent me to Mayo where I was re-diagnosed with Parachute Mitral Valve Syndrome,” Mikkelson said. “My mitral valve wasn't closing properly, making my heart work extra hard. That was why my left ventricle and my heart was so enlarged.”
As a result of the late diagnosis, doctors were unable to replace the valve. A heart transplant was her only option, however, regulations prevented her from being placed on the transplant list until she was in poor health and in dire need of a new heart.
Bittersweet, the news came at a point when Mikkelson was stuck in an inactive life routine.
“Elementary through High School, I sat in the bleachers during gym class and wrote reports,“ Mikkelson said. “Anything that involved high cardiovascular-activity meant that I was sitting on the sidelines.”
After graduating, Mikkelson found herself enjoying a seemingly normal life working for Great Plains Software. It was around this time that she began suffering from bronchial problems and returned to the hospital to discover that she was experiencing heart failure. As a result of the complications, her lungs were filling with fluid and the prognosis appeared poor. Luckily for Mikkelson, she was placed on a donor list and was first introduced to LifeSource.
LifeSource is a non-profit focused on providing organs to communities across Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and parts of Western Wisconsin.
“Organs come from a tri-state area, through Lifesource who act as an organ recruitment agency in our region,” she said.
Placed on the transplant list in May of 1999, her inclusion on the list came not a moment too soon.
“I was pretty sick and continuously getting worse,” Mickkelson admitted. “I was sleeping 18 hours a day, I could barely stay awake. They had me on a bunch of blood pressure medication and I had fluid restrictions.”
When all hope seemed lost, Mikkelson received her transplant on January 14, 2000 — nearly nine months after being added to the transplant list.
“At this point in time I had good health insurance, disability insurance, and all these things were in place,” she said.
After the success of the heart transplant, Mikkelson took to recovery with small steps that eventually grew into great strides. For the first three months after surgery, she remained in Minnesota to allow for monitoring of her recovery. During this time doctors were analyzing how her body was accepting the donor heart.
Throughout the three months of monitoring her body rejected the heart in mild forms until the final biopsy. When all seemed hopeless to Mikkelson, at her darkest hour, the results came back and it was good news — Her body had become attuned with the new heart.
In the proceeding years, Mikkelson has continued to take every breath with a sense of gratitude and a renewed life’s purpose.
Today, she manages a horse endurance ride during the mid-summer months in Medora N.D., in an effort to bring awareness to organ donations, with all proceeds going to Lifesource. As a LifeSource ambassador, she continues to contribute money raised through riding, as well as earned in competitions, to LifeSource.
A few years after the transplant, Mikkelson attempted to reach out to the family of the donor through LifeSource but never received a reply.
“Whether they wanted contact with me or not, I wanted them to know that they saved my life…” Mikkelson said. “I knew that I didn't necessarily need them to be apart of my life, but I wanted to acknowledge what they did.”
The life Mikkelson lives, according to her, is not for just herself — but for the donor.
Together they have continued their annual check-up appointments at Mayo, they have found a Minnesotan man to love, marry and raise their dogs and cats with, and together, they bring awareness of organ donation by promoting LifeSource at different endurance rides or running events across the Midwest.
To Mikkelson, it is important that she continue to live a life worth living — for herself and for her donor.
“I feel this obligation deep inside me to do the best I can for myself, because sometimes I feel like I am living for two people.” she said.