Pasadena Woman Relishes Second Chance at Life

It wasn’t Melissa Ziebell’s first time running a half marathon. She was an active athlete at the time, someone who also enjoyed kickboxing and CrossFit. In her mind, this was simply training for a full marathon. As Ziebell headed into the last mile of the Paris Half Marathon in March 2015, the current Pasadena resident readied for her photo finish as an overhead camera was about to capture a souvenir snapshot. Then she looked down. There would be no picture.
“I remember seeing my legs giving up and I couldn’t run anymore, and that’s all I remember,” Ziebell said of the cardiac arrest that nearly claimed her life last year. “I didn’t feel any pain. I didn’t feel anything at all.”
Eighteen months after that fateful day, Ziebell has recovered enough to participate in the American Heart Association’s Heart Walk at the Rose Bowl on Oct. 8. She will share her story with others at the national nonprofit’s premier event for raising funds to save lives from the country’s No. 1 and No. 5 killers — heart disease and stroke.
“I already died once, so it is kind of crazy thinking of that,” Ziebell said. “It’s like I have all these opportunities. I see life a little bit differently now.”
Ziebell’s life began in Colombia, where she lived for 18 years before immigrating to the United States to study physics at Drexel University in Philadelphia. After graduating, Ziebell moved to Paris to pursue a master’s degree in the field.
“It was really scientific and I was always studying, so I needed to move and go outside,” she said.
“I kind of became obsessed with sports.”
Ziebell’s passion for physical activity eventually led her to the half marathon that would change her life. The first memory after everything went black in the last mile was the sound of people calling her name. She couldn’t open her eyes to see them, or move any other part of her body for that matter. When Ziebell finally came to, she learned that two young girls trained in CPR were her first responders. They were forced to use a defibrillator when the initial chest compressions proved ineffective in resuscitating Ziebell, who somehow still wanted to finish the race.
“They asked ‘Do you know where you are?’ I said ‘We’re in kilometer 19’ because I remember I’d just passed that line,” Ziebell said. “I wanted to continue running, so I kind of stood up.”
Of course, those huddled around her immediately extinguished those aspirations. Ziebell was instead transported to a local hospital, where doctors discovered a congenital defect that she never knew existed: transposition of the right coronary artery.
“They told me that in most of your cases, people die,” said Ziebell, who still can’t help but wonder what would have happened if she suffered cardiac arrest just four days earlier when she was alone on a training run, rather than surrounded by several spectators and fellow runners during the event.
After mulling her options,
Ziebell decided to undergo an open-heart surgery that offered her the best chance to return to sports and the type of physical activity she craved.
Ziebell’s older sister Carolina, who lived in Pasadena, traveled to Paris for support despite dealing with her own medical condition at the time. It was her second trip to the French capital.
“It’s funny how a perception of a city changes because of the situation,” said Carolina Ziebell, who had previously visited the city as a tourist.
“Even though I was under a medical circumstance, too, I had to put out a lot of positive energy to cheer her up. So I think, in a way, the situation also helped me see things in a different perspective.”
Following a stay at a cardio rehab hospital, Ziebell moved back to the United States and has been living with her sister in Pasadena since last October.
“She’s showing me how to love Pasadena,” said Ziebell, who enjoys watching independent films at the Laemmle Playhouse as well as causally biking around town.
She is still not allowed to run excessively and must monitor her heart rate with a specialized watch. Strenuous activities such as lifting weights or even sneezing causes sternum pain stemming from the surgery, although the discomfort is slowly subsiding with time. Doctors are unsure when Ziebell will be completely pain-free, however.
“For elderly people, they don’t move a lot,” said the 35-year-old, who works as a test engineer at Rockley Photonics in Pasadena. “So usually it’s not as much of a problem as it is in younger people. They don’t know in my case.”
In the meantime, Ziebell is looking forward to promoting the importance of CPR and sharing her story at the upcoming Heart Walk. According to the American Heart Association, approximately 90% of people who suffer out-of-hospital cardiac arrests do not survive. CPR, especially if performed immediately, can double or triple a cardiac arrest victim’s chance of survival.
“She understands how fortunate she was that she collapsed where people were on the ready and able to do CPR,” said Kristine Kelly, senior director of communications and marketing for the American Heart Association. “The reality of it is that not too many people are confident to step up in an emergency like that, really for lack of training. But when people know what to do, they immediately step in. So it’s a matter of empowering people to learn how to provide CPR in an emergency. That’s really the message of
Melissa’s story.”
The Heart Walk will be Ziebell’s first organized race since the Paris half marathon. She has joined a team from UCLA, where her current cardiologist practices. Carolina will walk alongside Melissa, hoping to maintain a safe pace for her sister.
“I don’t know how to deal with that, actually, because she gets excited and I’m not as physically trained as she is,” said Carolina
Ziebell.
“Melissa is my favorite person on the whole planet. I adore her. When I found out, I was super worried and then when everything went so well, luckily, I began to understand what it’s like to be in life-and-death situations.”
While Ziebell has come to terms with the reality that she will likely never be able to complete in a full marathon, she maintains a long-term goal of one day returning to Paris in order to cross the finish line in the half marathon. The dream is not that farfetched, as her job involves frequent business trips to Europe.
“My mom doesn’t want me to, but I really want to,” Ziebell said.
“It is kind of important because I was nearly there.”

Leave a Reply