‘Two heart surgeries deep’: one UNC student’s journey across the finish line

By Guillermo Molero

Sept. 15, 2022

It’s 11 p.m. on a school night, but Hannah Collett doesn’t care.

The air outside is heavy and humid, but she’s still in her oversized sweatshirt, running around the turf at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Hooker Fields. She’s been running down there for an hour, and she’ll keep running for at least one more. 

Hannah’s been preparing to compete in the TCS New York City Marathon this November. But every day, she runs the risk that her heart might stop before she even reaches the starting line.

Hannah started running in the summer before she started high school to get into better shape. When she started, she thought it was awful. But the more she ran, she started to appreciate how awful it was.

And even though she didn’t love running yet, she wanted to get better at it.

One evening that July 2016, she heard her dad telling her mom that he’d just run 4.8 miles. Hannah had never run more than three. Once she heard him say that, she knew she had to run five. 

That same day, Hannah left home at 1 p.m. and started running. She didn’t bring any water. She didn’t tell anyone else where she was going. She didn’t say how long she’d be gone. She just ran. 

“I’m so stubborn,” Hannah said. “It’s just crazy. I’m an all-or-nothing person. Either 100 percent of my effort is going into something or zero percent. And when I’m in it, I’m in it.”

And when it came to running, she was in it. 

Hannah worked her way up to running several miles a day, gradually increasing her stamina throughout high school and upon her arrival to UNC-CH.

She’s often joined on her runs by Spencer Higgins, her girlfriend of one-and-a-half years. Spencer is no fan of running, so she usually tags along for Hannah’s longer treks on her bike, bringing along water and snacks to help replenish her partner’s energy. The two use the time to catch up, talking about their schoolwork or duties as midshipmen in UNC’s Naval ROTC battalion.  

An unexpected challenge

On Oct. 7, 2021, Hannah and Spencer embarked on one of their normal training sessions on Hooker Fields. This time, they were preparing for Hannah’s inaugural marathon in Durham at the end of the month. It was a lighter run than usual for Hannah, Spencer recalled. Suddenly, Hannah stopped in her tracks.

“Catch me,” Hannah said.

Spencer rushed under her and did just that, helping her to the ground. 

“Feel my pulse.”

Her heart was beating quickly — too quickly. It felt more like the heart rate of a rabbit or a baby bird, Spencer said. It didn’t feel human.

The pair weren’t sure what to make of the incident, though, and figured it must have been brought on by fatigue. Hannah decided to keep running, and continued to prepare for the marathon that Halloween. 

She went on to post a respectable time for an amateur, clocking in at just over five hours and eight minutes in her baggy UNC-CH t-shirt. She was the youngest competitor in the field at only 19-years-old, and later found out that she ran the race with a stress fracture in her right foot. 

Hannah’s injury didn’t keep her off her feet for long, with only a few weeks passing before she was able to return to her nightly runs. However, those nights were afflicted with more incidents like the one in early October. After consulting her girlfriend and her parents, Kelly and Rich Collett, Hannah made an appointment to see a cardiologist on her native Long Island, New York. 

Her parents didn’t realize the scope of the problem either, and let Hannah go to her appointment alone; a decision Kelly says they soon came to regret. 

Coping with a diagnosis

Hannah was diagnosed with Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, a rare condition that develops before birth and causes a faster heart rate. 

She got the phone number of the surgeon that would go on to perform her first surgery that same day, and passed it along to her parents.

“We had no idea how this all worked,” Kelly said. “We didn’t know what it would be or if she was going to be okay. We just didn’t know at that point in time. It was just a very scary little while.”

After her first heart surgery on Jan. 3, 2022, Hannah would get the news that the issue was far worse than doctors had thought. The structure of her heart had been so altered by the disease that the likelihood the syndrome would cause sudden cardiac death jumped from 1-in-200 to 1-in-20. And if that were to happen, there would be no saving her.

Spencer said Hannah usually tells jokes to try and cope with the difficult position her condition has put her in. As a certified EMT, though, Spencer knows how serious the situation really is.

“It’s more like, ‘Don’t let yourself think about it, and keep making jokes.’ It’s a facade,” Spencer said. “But, statistically speaking, running more increases the amount of time your heart beats. And increasing the number of heartbeats increases the likelihood that it’ll just stop.” 

Hannah says she often hears about how well she’s handling the situation, even from doctors. 

But she’s not. 

Hannah says she’s handling it extremely poorly. There are times when she can’t help but think about how she went from finishing a marathon and being in the best shape of her life to being diagnosed with a fatal heart condition. She can’t help but think about how she doesn’t know where she and her heart actually stand after an inconclusive surgery. And she can’t help but think about the chances, slim or not, that she might never see her family or friends again.\

How could she not?

After undergoing another surgery on June 1, doctors still aren’t sure whether her heart has fully recovered. But she isn’t going to let that stop her. She’s been training to race in New York City since her doctors cleared her to run. 

Hannah says she doesn’t want her heart to be the reason she doesn’t run the marathon – she doesn’t want to give her heart the satisfaction. 

“I know I had the heart condition when I ran the last marathon, but it doesn’t feel like that in a way,” Hannah said. “Now, I’m two heart surgeries deep, and I want to cross the finish line of my next 26.2 and prove to everybody — and, I guess, mostly to myself — that I’m OK.” 

When she laces up for one of the world’s most famous races, her parents will be watching from the sidelines. Kelly says it’s been hard not being able to look after her while she’s at school, but they’re excited to be back with their daughter soon. 

And when she crosses the finish line in November, that moment will mean everything. 

Edited by Jane Durden and Mackenzie Frank