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Living Twice: Open Heart Surgery at 25

Audrey Ewing stands in front of downtown Corvallis wall art.

It’s not a secret that life preciously transient, and it’s not uncommon to go about our daily lives forgetting that every day is a gift on the ever spinning wheel of fate and fortune. For Audrey Ewing, the wheel only spun faster when she found out at a mere 24 years old that she had a ticking time bomb in her chest. 

Ewing, now 27, finds her passion in the world of fitness, where she has made a lifelong career out of her love for health and exercise. After graduating with her Bachelor’s of Science in Kinesiology with a Concentration in Exercise Science from Pacific Lutheran University, she continued on her road to better herself and the fitness world around her.

But her career and life were abruptly put on hold when she found out she had a deadly heart aneurysm. 

She was faced with something unknown to many, and rare to a young woman in her 20’s; open-heart surgery at Stanford General Cardiology where she would lie clinically dead with a cracked and open sternum for a minimum of two hours. Only then was she given “the opportunity to live twice.” 

Ewing speaks about her journey, both prior to and after surgery, and how she has been able to use this burden as a means of inspiration amid her career, where she most recently was a contracted health and fitness specialist at SamFit in Corvallis, and a Health and Fitness Coordinator and Personal Trainer and Group Exercise Instructor, at the YMCA in Albany.

What are you passionate about outside of work? 

“Fitness has been my life. I love movement, exercise, and weight training. I danced my whole adolescent life. But I also really like being outside. I love being in nature and spending time with friends and family. I really value my time with the people that I love.”

Tell me about your hometown, and why you chose Pacific Lutheran University. 

“I had lived in Corvallis my whole life, I’d never been anywhere else. So I wanted to go and experience something different, and this [college] was the perfect opportunity to do that without feeling like I was completely alone. So I applied to six different colleges, to which then I was actually told by our high school ‘career teacher’ that, because of my not-so-good SAT and ACT scores, I wouldn’t get into any of these colleges; I got into all six. So to her, I was like ‘F’ you! It just really goes to show that numbers aren’t everything, and that it’s the personality behind the person. I then auditioned for an orchestra scholarship at PLU ‘cause I had played the violin for nine years; I didn’t end up getting anything. But ultimately it was my experience at that audition that sold it for me, 100. Everyone was so nice and gave really good feedback, vs. my experience at another school I auditioned for.” 

Did you always know you wanted to do something in health and fitness? What inspired you? 

“No, not at all. I thought I wanted to be a physician’s assistant! So I was studying biology, but after taking a public health class that I loved and found so interesting with Dr. P, I decided I wanted to switch majors. So I asked him [Dr. P.] to be my advisor, and I transferred to the kinesiology department. During that time in college I joined the rowing team and started weight training for the first time. With this I found a power in myself that I had never fulfilled before; I found this other potential or strength in me that I never knew I had. Additionally, in an internship I had for one of my classes, I had this really unique experience working with a parapaligic, where I had to be creative with exercises and utilize gravity in a different way. I really enjoyed the challenges and experience of that.”

But then when I graduated, I still had no idea what I wanted to do. So I moved back to Oregon, and applied at the YMCA for a position where I’d be just cleaning equipment, and things like that. They called me and were really impressed with my resume and ended up interviewing me for, and offering, a position as a personal trainer.” 

What was one of the biggest challenges you’ve had to overcome? Tell me about your journey into this career path. 

“Heart Surgery at 25. It was a life-changing challenge that complicated my work. I went from always exercising and all of a sudden had to quit cold turkey, and had to rethink my entire life path. I feel very fortunate for the experience though, not that I would suggest people go through something like this. But it was a traumatic experience for me at a very young age, and it gave me a new appreciation for a lot of different things, like having an able body, because I could be in a totally different situation. I’m really grateful for that every day, just being able to do the things I do.” 

How did you feel when you first found out that you were going to need open heart surgery?

“What did this mean? Was this meant to send me on a different path? It was very devastating, heartbreaking, and shocking, and unreal in the moment. I was anticipating this to happen at 60, not 25. I still sometimes question it. I could have waited two years for the surgery, but I would’ve been living in fear the whole time, so having the surgery as soon as possible was a given. I knew they would have to stop my heart for a couple of hours, and I just kept thinking ‘what if they can’t get it to restart?’ Just the thought of that was super scary.” 

How were you able to cope with this sudden change, and who was there to support you?

“I struggled so much within the six months prior to the surgery, dealing with so many internal thoughts as well as concern for my physical health. I became strong mentally within that wait time though, and got through it with meditating all the time and crying a lot. The unknown is a very scary feeling. If I could have known what it was like coming out the other side, it would have been easier. But my whole family — mom, dad, and brother —  they were my biggest supporters for sure. I remember I had my mom’s friend document the experience [surgery at Stanford], and there was one video of my mom, where you could see how exhausted she was, and that video said everything to me. Just how trying this experience was not just on me, but her too — she was so worried. But now I realize that I do technically have the opportunity to live twice, you could say, because I’ve already been clinically dead.” 

Tell me about the recovery.

“Physically, it’s an interesting thing recovering from heart surgery when you know you’re in pretty good shape. I was an athlete my entire life, but after leaving the hospital, I could barely walk four minutes at a time without being out of breath. It’s been two years now, and it still comes up that I don’t feel like I’m good or worthy enough for my job, which is so ridiculous if you think about it, because I’m still getting stronger. I just sometimes still compare myself to what I used to be able to do; this my new normal, and that takes some getting used to.” 

What is your favorite part about your job(s)? 

“I love working with people, and love to hear people’s success stories of fixing their health. But I also love the fun challenges, and the treasured learning. I had to learn how to communicate verbally when I was working with a blind guy. Normally you show people with your bodies what things [exercises] are supposed to look like, and I obviously couldn’t do that with him. I had to learn to better use my words to explain to him what we were doing, and how it was supposed to be. This was an extremely growthful situation.” 

What is the most difficult part?

“Diet culture. Weight loss is the only thing that sells. I danced and exercised out of love, but now it seems that through diet culture we have become a society that is so ingrained in fixing ourselves from the moment we are born to the moment we die, and where’s the fun in that? It’s very toxic, and it’s hard not to get wrapped up in it when you work in the health and fitness field. I, too, had an eating disorder, which I am still in recovery for. Genetics play such a huge role on your body composition, and it’s really sad when a majority of my clients come in and just want to change the way they look. There’s so much more to life than wanting to be in a smaller body and changing the way you look. We are so much more than our bodies.”

If you could do anything in the world, what would you do? 

“If I didn’t have to worry about a job, I would just go and travel and try different jobs and things. I’d be more impulsive, and would enjoy just my body moving.”

Audrey Ewing

Most Recent Occupation: Contracted Health and Fitness Specialist at SamFit of Corvallis and Health and Fitness Coordinator (as well as Professional Trainer and Group Exercise Instructor) at the YMCA of Albany. 

Age: 27

Hometown: Corvallis, Oregon

Education: Bachelor’s of Science in Kinesiology with a Concentration in Exercise Science from Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington.

Passions: Exercising; moving her body, and spending time in nature and with people she loves.

Biggest Life Challenge: Overcoming the removal of a deadly aneurysm in open-heart surgery at the age of 25. Other Interests: Traveling, and her beloved dog, Athena.

Ewing weight lifts, not afraid to show her scar.
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