It’s been a long road for Kambe Padgett, who had open-heart surgery 30 years ago to repair a hole in her heart. And it’s been a difficult one — Padgett has returned to the operating table for seven subsequent surgeries in the past nine years.
But when Padgett participates in the 2023 Alaska Heart Run & Walk on Saturday in Anchorage, it will represent both a victory and a redemption, the final step on her journey to healing.
“It will be emotional,” she said. “After last year, I just thought I’m never going to be able to do this. I loved to hike and run and I haven’t been able to do that. So even doing this walk on Saturday, it’s a big thing for me just to say to myself, ‘OK, I can do this.’ "
As recently as last year, Padgett still suffered the effects of heart disease. She could barely finish the 2022 Heart Walk and struggled with shortness of breath, dizziness and fatigue. But after an eighth ablation procedure — used to treat an irregular heartbeat — in August, she feels like a level of normalcy has been restored to her life.
“This Heart Walk is really important because I kind of want to redeem myself a little bit,” she said. “If you keep on top of your heart health, you can beat it. I’m not a victim anymore. I’m not a victim. I’ve beat it. So this is why this is a big deal for me.”
Padgett, who grew up in Seward and now lives in Wasilla, hasn’t always been able to say that. As a teenager, she wanted to be more active but physically wasn’t able.
“I love to play basketball, but when you do drills and practice, I couldn’t do it,” she said. “I couldn’t breathe and I’d have chest pain. I turned gray. And people were just thinking I was faking it wanting attention.”
Eventually she was diagnosed with an atrial septal defect, and at age 17 she went to Seattle for an open heart surgery. Then nine years ago, she started feeling off.
That was the start of a string of surgeries, including installation of a pacemaker, and more than 20 medications. Time after time, the procedures failed to provide relief and left her increasingly desperate.
“I couldn’t exercise, and I had a really crappy attitude having a pacemaker, so mentally that was depressing,” she said. “It was like, a failure feeling. I still couldn’t do stuff like how we suspected I’d be able to, and I gained weight. It was physically depressing. Emotionally, I was a wreck for a really long time.”
But her most recent ablation surgery has her feeling both fit and confident.
Padgett, who earlier this month competed in the Mrs. Alaska America Pageant, will be walking Saturday with fellow pageant contestants. Her pageant platform was awareness of heart disease, and while the Heart Run is a major fundraiser, it also puts a major emphasis on education and training.
“I got associated with the Heart Walk because I’m all about trying to get people to know signs and symptoms, how to do CPR,” she said. “If you walk or do the run, it’s just Alaskans getting united to take a stand against it.”
In her 30-year battle with heart disease, Padgett feels like she has gone from victim to victor.
“Now I’m back to being able to exercise, and so this Heart Walk, it’s like OK, I’m living proof,” she said. “We can beat this. We don’t have to be the victim to it.”
Anchorage’s Rob Gambill was only 49 when he suffered a heart attack in 2021. He wasn’t feeling right and went to the hospital, and soon he was having a blockage cleared with the placement of a stent. He recalled the conversation he had with his wife shortly before going into surgery, and the realization it may be their last.
“There’s moments like that, that you kind of think back on and go, you know, I’m glad that that didn’t come to that,” he said.
It was a wake-up call and a realization he had to make some lifestyle changes, including quitting one of his favorite pastimes — smoking. It’s been two smoke-free years for Gambill, and this will be his second year participating in the Heart Walk.
“If I can quit smoking, anybody can quit smoking,” he said. “My dad smoked when I was younger, and so I tried it out when I was a kid, right? It’s funny to hear people a lot of times say, ‘Smoking is horrible and you wish you would never have picked it up.’ But I actually enjoyed it. I liked smoking. I liked the ritual of it. I liked the smell of it, believe it or not. I enjoyed it. And so if I can give it up, anyone can.”
Amber Doyle had spent nearly two decades working in health care as a licensed practical nurse and administrator when heart disease made a major impact on her life not once, but twice. Her father had a heart attack at age 52 and passed away. Shortly after that, Doyle herself was diagnosed with heart disease at age 35.
It meant major lifestyle changes for her as well.
“I lived a very fast-paced life, so it was very frustrating for me,” Doyle said. “I was a single mom and feel like I needed to slow down and take a minute, take a breather. Then of course getting used to medications and and all of that. So it was very, very shocking.”
And while she’s made changes, Doyle hasn’t put her life on hold due to the disease. She manages two assisted homes, owns a small business and started a nonprofit a few years ago. That organization, Chronic Hope of Alaska, helps Alaskans navigate the challenges of chronic illnesses. It focuses largely on the financial, family and mental health impacts of chronic disease.
“When you find out you have a chronic disease, you obviously find out everything there is medically about that disease,” she said. But doctors don’t necessarily “tell you what kind of burden it’s going to be on your checkbook or how it’s going to affect you mentally or even your family as a whole unit,” she said.
Her team for Saturday is Midnight Sun Tanning & Boutique, the business she owns in Palmer. The team includes friends, family and customers, and all of Saturday’s sales from the shop will go to the American Heart Association.
She said the Heart Run & Walk has allowed her to meet other people who have similar experiences.
“It’s been an amazing experience to be able to meet so many other people that have the same personal experiences,” she said. “Because you know, you’re not alone. You feel like you’ve got your own set of new family that know exactly what you’re going through.”
If you go
What: The Alaska Heart Run & Walk, sponsored by the American Heart Association, is a major fundraiser for the fight against heart disease. More than 3,000 Alaskans regularly participate, and this year’s goal is to raise $400,000.
When: 9 a.m. Saturday
Where: Alaska Airlines Center
Registration: Onsite registration starts at 7:30 a.m. Cost for timed 5K runners is $35 and $30 for youths age 8-17. Kids 7 and younger can run for free. Walkers participate for free.