St. Thomas Aquinas High School senior Hannah Ohman has always pushed herself to the limit while running, but that limit was never quite realized until a 5k race last September.

Hannah’s body started to grow heavy. Pins and needles stung her legs. Her arms went numb. Her vision tunneled. She passed out.

Hannah, 17, passed out for 30 seconds during the race that day, and several episodes thereafter launched her and her parents into a six-month frenzy to diagnose what was suddenly wrong with the veteran track runner.

But during all that time, Hannah persisted — a grit and strength that impressed even Olympic medalist Deena Kastor on Thursday when the two met at Akron Children’s Hospital ahead of Saturday's Akron Marathon.

“You don't get more competitive than Hannah is,” Kastor said. "She is the embodiment of what it takes to be a great athlete and a success story."

Runner down

Hannah has been running since she was just 8 years old, pushing through seasonal allergies that affect her “like clockwork,” she said.

Allergies hit her particularly bad last September and developed into a sinus infection and bronchitis. She attributed her first fainting spell to being sick.

But two weeks later, Hannah lost consciousness while running again for a little less than two minutes. Then, a week later, she passed out for three minutes and temporarily lost the ability to talk.

“She’d be running ahead of the pack, and then suddenly, there’s no Hannah,” said Hannah’s mom, Racheal Ohman. “The first couple times your kid goes down, you’re completely freaking out. … For us, that’s hard as parents to watch.”

Diagnosis

In the months that followed, doctors tested Hannah’s heart and nervous system, both of which were normal.

It wasn’t until the family visited Dr. Rajeev Bhatia, a pediatric pulmonologist at Akron Children’s Hospital, that Hannah’s true diagnosis was discovered in March.

Bhatia oversees the hospital’s Clinical Exercise Physiology Lab, one of a few of its kind in the country, he said.

Bhatia measured Hannah’s metabolic rate along with her respiratory and cardiac functions as she ran on a treadmill. All looked healthy, but Bhatia noticed Hannah making a breathing noise near the end of her run.

From the noise, Bhatia diagnosed Hannah with vocal cord dysfunction (VCD), a condition in which the vocal cords close during inhalation and block the airways. He determined that the condition caused exercise-induced hyperventilation in Hannah, which is why she began passing out during longer runs.

VCD can be triggered by a variety of outside factors, including anxiety, acid reflux, asthma and allergies. The symptoms of VCD are similar to asthma, often leading to a misdiagnosis, but the two are not the same.

Although the condition cannot be cured, it can be managed through breathing exercises and sometimes even psychological intervention to ease the anxiety.

“The best part about patients like Hannah is that they’re so self-motivated,” Bhatia said. “That’s a bonus for us.”

Hannah began practicing daily breathing exercises that she learned from a speech pathologist, learning to breathe from her diaphragm rather than her chest. She also practices yoga and meditation daily to focus on deep, steady breathing.

The exercises have helped, Hannah said, although she’s passed out three times since she was diagnosed — one more time her junior year, and twice this year.

But it’s only pushed her harder. When she passed out in the spring of her junior year, she was disappointed, but she persisted with the motivation of her teammates.

As the anchor of the relay team, Hannah returned just a half-hour later and helped them earn a spot in the state meet that year.

“I’ve never seen anything like it. She just will not give,” Racheal Ohman said. “I think Hannah puts herself in a different place mentally.”

It keeps you running

Kastor — an American marathon record-holder, a role model of Hannah’s and the recipient this year of the Akron Marathon Ambassador Award — stopped by Children’s Hospital on Thursday to meet the persistent teen.

The two bonded over their similar experiences — in 2000, Kastor passed out during the World Cross-Country Championships in Portugal after being stung in the mouth by a bee, but she finished the race anyway.

Moreover, they bonded over the persistence and love for running that they both share.

While Kastor is running the marathon Saturday, Hannah will be running a cross country meet with the hopes of qualifying for the Stark County Track and Field Championships.

Although she is running a 5k race during the meet, Hannah isn't worried about passing out. Her teammates support her, and her coaches don’t deter her from trying — instead, they’ve helped her learn her limits and are working with her to break through those.

But Hannah’s largest motivation to continue running comes from within.

“I don’t understand why you’d want to give up something you love. I worked at it so long, so it’d be a waste of time for me,” Hannah said. “For me, giving up was never really an option.”

 

Theresa Cottom-Bennett can be reached at 330-996-3216 or tcottom@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @Theresa_Cottom.