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2024 Syracuse Heart Walk

Meet Greg Riley

Greg Riley and kids photo1Greg Riley says when his heart stopped, it gave him a restart on life.

“I always told my kids and wife I love them,” he said. “Now I say it ten times a day.”

Greg had always been told he had a strong heart. He was a runner and even worked for years coordinating large running events. In 2022, however, he skipped a run because he was feeling short of breath and felt like his heart was racing. In fact, he even questioned the heart rate reading on his watch.

Greg kept the feelings to himself for a while. When he told his wife a few weeks later, she told him to go to the doctor. Several tests didn’t find anything wrong, but he still wasn’t feeling quite right.

“There was no rhyme or reason to it,” Greg said. “I could walk down the block and be out of breath, or I could walk 14 miles and be fine.”

Greg Riley and wife photo3In July of 2022, Greg was talking to a coworker when the room suddenly started spinning.

“I blacked out. My co-worker caught me and I woke up to a guy shaving my chest,” Greg said.

Greg had a serious abnormal heart rhythm called ventricular fibrillation, or VF. It is extremely dangerous and can be fatal within minutes. During VF, disordered electrical activity causes the heart’s lower chambers to quiver instead of contracting, or beating, normally, which prohibits the heart from pumping blood. Greg’s heart stopped.

Luckily, a nearby security guard and Greg’s business client knew what to do. They started cardiopulmonary resuscitation, or CPR, right away, while branch associates called 911. When EMTs arrived, they had to use an automated external defibrillator, or AED, three times to restore Greg’s normal heart rhythm.

When Greg woke up at the hospital, someone was shaving his chest so doctors could implant a defibrillator. He still gets the defibrillator checked every 90 days, but things are going well. Greg has a family history of atrial fibrillation, or AFib, but not VF.

Greg Riley and kids photo2“My first question was, ‘Should my kids get checked?’” Greg said. “My youngest son is usually very physically fit, but he was prescribed a heart monitor to determine if there were any irregularities. He wasn’t feeling well, so he went to a cardiologist because of what I experienced.”

Doctors told Greg they might never know what caused VF that day, but it could have been low potassium levels in his blood.

For the one-year anniversary of Greg’s cardiac arrest, his family treated it like a birthday. His kids and wife gave him gifts and they celebrated. Greg also waited to celebrate his anniversary with his wife. They now celebrate annually his “Heartversary”- coined by a very dear friend.

“It’s a new birthday, a new anniversary, a new beginning,” he said. “I’m very grateful. The little things mean more to me, and my wife and I are more spontaneous. It’s all about making memories.

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Meet Emmie Wilson

Emmie and Gina Wilson photo2Gina Vaughn-Wilson is a “mom on a mission.” She and her family have been on a medical journey since her daughter, Emmie Wilson, was about 7-months-old. In April of 2023, just two months before Emmie turned two, she was finally diagnosed with an extremely rare genetic disorder. A few months later, she was in heart failure.

In September, Emmie and her family were at one of her many medical appointments. When the doctor listened to her heart, it was racing. Emmie headed to the hospital.

“At the emergency room, things were out of normal range,” said Emmie’s mother Gina. “They said there was a gallop in her heartbeat.”

Emmie Wilson photo1Emmie’s left ventricle was enlarged and not functioning properly. Her heart was struggling to pump blood to the rest of her body. Despite having no symptoms beforehand, Emmie was diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy and spent eight days in intensive care. Emmie’s doctors suspect this had been developing slowly.

Emmie was also diagnosed with an ASD, or atrial septal defect. She has a hole in her heart that likely will not close on its own. Gina said doctors told her they wouldn’t normally close an ASD until a child is five-years-old, but Emmie’s is too big. She may need surgery in the spring of 2024.

Emmie Wilson photo3Emmie has been home since her stay in the ICU. She is on medication and has no restrictions. Her medications are working, but overall, her heart has not improved.

Since Emmie’s diagnosis is still relatively new, there are many unanswered questions Gina says their family is still “in the thick of it.”

“There is only one study written about her genetic condition,” Gina said. “There is nothing written about an association with her heart condition, but that doesn’t mean its not connected…We do know the hole in her heart didn’t cause the dilated cardiomyopathy. They are separate entities.”

Emmie Wilson photo4Gina and her family are sharing Emmie’s story as an Inspirational Honoree at the 2024 Syracuse Heart Challenge.

“Sometimes it feels like I’m going through this alone. I want to be able to share her story so others don’t have to feel alone in this struggle,” Gina said. “I’m honored to be able to put a face and personality to this thing that you don’t always see.”

Emmie’s medical journey has become a family affair. For every doctor appointment, Gina and her eight-year-old daughter, Liberty, made a bracelet to give to someone. Now, Liberty is even joining the Syracuse Heart Challenge.

“Liberty told me she’s raising money for her sister’s Heart Walk,” said Gina. “She’s even collecting change.”