By American Heart Association News
American Ninja Warrior, you’ve been warned: Molly Hemphill is coming after you.
She’s fit, courageous, and indomitable. A zealous rock climber eager to take on your rugged obstacle course. Don’t underestimate her—she’s conquered plenty already.
Hemphill, a 32-year-old Vancouver Clinic patient, has a congenital heart defect.
A surprising diagnosis
Growing up, Hemphill loved sports, the outdoors, and ballet. She remembers sometimes feeling heart palpitations and chest pain, but she and her doctors dismissed it as stress or overexertion.
Then eight years ago, she took her young son to the doctor for a checkup. In the exam room, she winced with chest pain, and the doctor turned his stethoscope to her.
“You’ve got a heart murmur,” he told her.
A battery of cardiology tests finally found the problems: a pulmonary valve defect that caused an enlarged heart, and electrical issues resulting in tachycardia, an elevated heart rate. That, and a subsequent removal of a cancerous thyroid, left her weak, fearful, and facing a heart valve replacement a few years down the road.
Getting out there
While the diagnosis was scary, she was determined not to let it hold her back.
“Maybe it’s easier for us heart patients to live a sedentary life,” Hemphill said. “We think as long as we preserve ourselves and we’re super careful, maybe we’ll get to live a long life. I decided to put my foot down and said, ‘You know what? My time is going to happen whether I’m sitting on a couch or getting out there. I’d rather get out there.’”
She began hiking, then running, then discovered a passion for climbing rocks. She pushed herself. Her doctor, Vancouver Clinic cardiologist Aaron Schoenkerman, said she could run three miles. She ran five and came back and asked, “What can I do now?”
Finally, he said, “OK, no limits. Go test yourself.”
“That’s the greatest doctor’s appointment you can have,” she said.
Taking on a hit NBC show
The impetus to challenge American Ninja Warrior, she said, came from her son Gerrick, who’s now 9. A couple of years ago they were watching the show “and he said, ‘That’s so cool. I want you to do that.’ I laughed and said, ‘I can’t even do a pull-up,’ and he said, ‘Why do you have excuses?’ I said, ‘Wow. Why do I have excuses? Let’s see if I can do it.’”
Hemphill, who works in information technology at Nike’s Oregon headquarters, upped her workouts and got in the best shape of her life. A year ago, she submitted an audition video showcasing her skills and making the case that it would be incredibly meaningful for people with heart disease to see one of their own on the show.
“I think it’s really important to represent the heart disease community,” Hemphill said. “A lot of times when you think about someone whose heart is damaged, you think about someone walking around with an oxygen tank. That might be the case for some people but it’s not all of us.”
The response was a chance to travel to the Los Angeles studio on her own as a walk-on—with only the slimmest chance of competing. She decided to try for 2018 instead.
“I’m going to get stronger, I’m going to push myself harder and there won’t be any question about whether I’m able to do this,” she said.
Sharing her passion
Hemphill hopes her story of determination and self-healing can inspire other heart patients. She has created a website, heartsforadventure.org, to share her progress and encourage others, and she plans to take that passion offline and outdoors by organizing meetups in the Portland area.
“I want to reach out to heart patients and take them rock climbing or even just on a walk,” she said. “These things typically start with a safety blanket, and that’s me. I want to build people up and empower them to do these things on their own—as long as they have their doctor’s permission.”
Hemphill’s own heart still has structural and electrical issues. She still suffers episodes of irregular heartbeats. But her lifestyle choices and fierce determination have paid off.
“All the cardio has vastly improved my lung function,” Hemphill said. “And parts of my heart are actually functioning better. I’ve strengthened myself holistically to the point that my heart doesn’t need a new valve in the foreseeable future, if ever.”