2016 DMC Epic Heart Hero Nikki Racine

August 14, 1992 was a day that literally took my breath away. I was 16, cruising around Marquette, Michigan with two of my high-school girlfriends, young and carefree. We were at a stop sign when I suddenly saw headlights and everything went black. The next thing I knew, I was strapped to a stretcher, unable to see, a neck brace in place, and being placed in an ambulance. I’d suffered a cervical neck fracture and a closed-head injury; my head had required 360 stitches. I remember the doctor coming into my hospital room that evening and telling me that I was incredibly lucky: I had nearly been paralyzed from the neck down. In a matter of seconds, everything had changed. My basketball career had come to a halt, my short-term memory was drastically affected, and my freedom was gone. All that I could control was the food that I put into my mouth . . . or didn’t.

NikkiRacineDBeing a “bigger” girl most of my life, I became obsessed with my weight. I wouldn’t allow myself to eat more than a few hundred calories a day and, when I did eat, I would find a way to make it come up again. In a sense, I was purging away my frustrations and heartache because I could no longer be who I was before. My friends and family tried to help me, but I resisted for a very long time. I finally admitted that I needed help, and I fought my way back to a healthy lifestyle, but, due to my eating disorder, my heart began to weaken without my knowledge.

I regained my health, fought back from my closed-head injury, and — on September 15, 2001 — I earned my law degree. This was the first time in my life that I was truly proud of myself and what I could achieve. With the ups in life come the downs, however. Less than six years later, thanks to a root canal gone drastically wrong, I became victim to a rampant infection that ate away a large portion of my jawbone. After countless surgeries and procedures, I had to have all of my teeth pulled. This was an excruciating experience; for years, I was unable to chew and properly nourish my body and, as a result, my heart continued to weaken.

NikkiRacineAI remained unaware of what my heart was going through until 2009, when my husband went to Australia on a fishing trip. A few days after he left, my heart felt like it was going to beat out of my chest. At first, I thought that I was just nervous that he would be so far away in the middle of the ocean, but my heart beat didn’t ease up. Ironically, my husband is an ER Physician but, with him being away and unreachable, I had to take matters into my own hands: I headed to the very Emergency Room where my husband was employed. There, I learned that my immune system had been severely weakened from my dental nightmare and, as a result, my body could not fight off infection. I was diagnosed with Viral Cardiomyopathy; my heart was functioning at only 30%. A bicuspid aortic valve (heart murmur) was discovered during this time, making it more difficult for the weakened heart muscle to pump. My cardiologist reported that there was a 50% chance that I would need a valve replacement in the future.

I was so scared; I still had so much to accomplish. I desperately wanted to have children. I wanted to make a difference in the world. I took my heart health into my hands and I concentrated on my healing. Nearly two years later, an echocardiogram showed that my heart function had improved to nearly normal. My husband and I were concerned with the cardiac stress pregnancy might cause, however. After several consultations, we learned that a risk of relapse was indeed possible with pregnancy. Knowing this, we chose to create our family through adoption. We soon received a call from our adoption agency that a baby boy had been born, and we had been chosen to become his parents. My joy was indescribable: I was now a mommy. I now had another reason to remain healthy and to keep my heart happy. His birth mother made the ultimate sacrifice. I made it my mission in life to make her proud.

NikkiRacineBI traded in my courtroom drama for slippers and play dates and, in 2012, I became the Director of Fund Development and Outreach for Adoption Associates, Inc., the very agency through which we had adopted our baby boy. I’d finally found my niche. I raise funds to help other children find their forever families. I created the annual Touched by Adoption 5K Run/Walk, where we celebrate adoption while promoting a healthy lifestyle. My heart was healthy — and bursting with pride.

NikkiRacineFThat same year, I received a phone call from two fellow runners who had contacted me for legal guidance as they brought their amazing vision, Fellow Flowers, into being. I was blown away by Tori’s and Mel’s dream; it gave me goosebumps. The Fellow Flowers vision was exactly what I needed, a clear understanding of why I work so hard to make my heart healthy and why I run. Fellow Flowers truly embraces what most women desire to have deep in their souls: a path to self realization and so much more. Friendship, unlimited possibility, an honest non-judgmental sense of belonging. The list goes on. I became part of the Fellow Flower Crew and have seen Fellow Flowers blossom into an amazing company.

NikkiRacineCWe have since added a beautiful little boy from Ethiopia to our family. My husband and I continue to live a healthy lifestyle and promote wellness among our family and friends. I have completed two full marathons and numerous shorter distances, and I am currently training for my third (and bucket-list) marathon, the New York City Marathon in November 2016. My heart continues to remain healthy as I spread the word about living life to the fullest. I certainly have fought my way back from moments that almost took my breath away forever, and I cherish moments that create memories with each breath I take. My heart is so full.