Jennifer Bardrof squeezed in lots of stuff in the spring of 2016, during the weeks she helped move her family from the Florida Gulf Coast back to her native Western New York: The Goofy, a 10K run followed by a half-marathon at Disney World; landing a new job as a substitute teacher; buying a new house.
She didn't have time to bother with the flu-like symptoms that dogged her during the busy stretch.
It wasn't the flu. A viral infection had attacked the covering around her heart. Over several days, it caused inflammation so severe that it squeezed her heart and shut it down.
She would have died if not for the efforts of the cardiology staffs at Mercy Hospital in South Buffalo and Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester. She spent two days on equipment that kept her heart beating while the Strong team addressed the virus, nearly two weeks on a ventilator, and roughly six weeks in the hospital.
"I had to learn how to do everything all over again. It was baby steps. Walking just a tenth of a mile was a huge accomplishment," said Bardrof, who teaches sixth-graders English as a New Language at Frank A. Sedita Academy.
The 35-year-old West Seneca resident will run the YMCA Buffalo Niagara Turkey Trot on Thanksgiving morning, her fifth race since last fall. Her husband, Jeremy, a computer engineer, will join her. The couple has two daughters, Madelyn, 6, and Addison, 4.
Bardrof credits her family – including parents Patti and Mike Sedar, both nurses, her sister, Michelle, and brother, Brian, for helping her get through her medical emergency and recovery.
“Running has always been my outlet and I set a goal of running the Buffalo Half Marathon because it was exactly one year from the day I was airlifted to Strong,” said Bardrof, who ran the May race with her husband, as well. “It was a great way to show my kids that I am strong and can do it.”
Q. How did you discover running?
I really do love to run. It started when I was in college (at SUNY Fredonia State). I wasn't into 5Ks yet. A bunch of friends would be studying and be pretty stressed out and that seemed to be our way to unwind. Once I left college, I started to become more serious about it. My family tends to be competitive and I needed it to push myself. I continued to love it and I got to the point where I needed a new challenge and that's when I started training for half-marathons.
The way that I feel afterward makes it one of my passions. I'm not great at it but I love it. Once I got out of the hospital, I knew that running and teaching were something I had to get back involved in. You need that motivation. You need something positive. I missed being in the classroom and I missed being able to put my sneakers on and my headphones in and just go.
Q. Were the doctors confident you were going to be fine?
Originally, they assumed my heart would have long-term damage. The doctors said, "You have to be slow, be super careful. You can't run anymore, you can't do this or that anymore." It was really hard to hear that this was going to be my new life. I started off really, really slow. I got lucky that my cardiologist, Dr. (Aravind) Hurle, also happens to be a runner. He understood my frustration. We did stress tests, and other tests, to see if my heart could handle smaller runs and then I'd start pushing myself a little bit more. Because of that, I was able to walk a mile. Then he said, "Let's try the stress test a little bit harder and see if your heart can manage it."
With him double checking and my mom slowing me down, we were able to get back to where I was. At my one-year, my doctors did my echocardiogram again and my heart had come back to where it's supposed to be, around 60, 65 (left ventricular ejection fraction, or LVEF). That's when I got cleared to go a little bit further.
Q. You taught elementary school in Fort Meyers, Fla. for a decade before you moved back to Western New York. Have you run the Turkey Trot before?
Last year was my first year. I haven't been in Buffalo. Normally, I've been in Florida for Thanksgiving. My sister and I ran last year. We made tutus and had special socks. You have to get dressed up.
Q. Do you do a lot of running now?
Unfortunately, school is really busy right now and my girls are young, so I don't get in really long runs … but I've been doing 3 to 5 miles at least twice a week.
Q. What have you learned as a result of your emergency? How have you changed your daily health habits?
I'm a lot more in tune with my body. I don't try to push things too hard. ... I have to be a little more careful. If I'm not feeling quite so good, I start to push a lot more vitamin C and a lot more water. I have a heart monitor on my FitBit and when I run, I make sure my heart's not going too crazy. I have to be a bit more conscious of things I never paid that much attention to before. It's good.
What I've learned in life is that there's no easy road to anything important. We take life for granted. We get so upset over the little things but now the little things aren't a big deal anymore. I'm excited that I'm here and can do Christmas with my children. We might not be able to get to everything – but it will be great. I've tried to slow down a little bit and enjoy every little bit with my kids.
We're so focused on working all the time. I was coming home and grading and doing lesson plans. I was missing out on a lot of game nights and doing things like baking cupcakes with my kids. Now that I've had this, I understand that they're only little for a little bit of time, and who knows what can happen next week.
Q. What do you expect you'll be thinking about while you're running with your husband on Thanksgiving morning?
All the calories we're burning, so we can have an extra piece of pie. And that the most important thing is family. Both of my parents didn't even think about their jobs when I was sick. They stayed with me the entire month in Rochester. My brother was going through medical school (at the University at Buffalo) and coming up every day he could. My husband had just started a new job. He would go to work in Buffalo and drive to Rochester every night.
It's amazing how close your family comes together during a time of need.
Twitter: @BNrefresh, @ScottBScanlon