Surviving a heart defect to become an 'American Ninja Warrior'

By American Heart Association News

Molly Hemphill with heart monitor
Molly Hemphill wearing a heart monitor. (Photo by Dave Burdick)

Molly Hemphill(link opens in new window) is a congenital heart disease survivor and was recently selected as a competitor on the television series American Ninja Warrior. She shares her life story and future goals.

At 25 years old, my life changed overnight.

I was struggling to fall asleep, unsure why, when my heart began to pound faster and faster and faster. It was 180 beats per minute and not slowing down.

As I wrapped my arms around my toddler son before heading to the hospital, I feared it would be my final hug. I was rushed to the hospital, where my heart stopped three times and was shocked to get it back into normal rhythm.

I was naive to think I could walk away from that experience being the same person I was before.

I spent the next three years fighting for my life, as I overcame post-traumatic stress disorder, learned how to live again and let go of the person I once had been.

While I was sick, I watched a climbing film on my television, presented by Reel Rock, featuring Chris Sharma and Adam Ondra. Both men were competing to be the first person to complete a route, called “La Dura Dura.” They put every part of themselves into this project. They fought for that climb like they were fighting for their life. I was so inspired. I knew when I was healthy again, I would have to climb. I hoped that would be my “someday,” and knew I would at least need to try.

But during my struggle toward health, I lost my marriage, my friends and a lot of family. How would I find the courage to rock climb on my own? How would I find the strength to do any of this? I was frail, weak and barely able to walk on my own for long distances.

I needed hope.

By 2015, I was healthy enough to start going on hikes alone. I was so scared and worried that something bad would happen to me. I didn’t trust my heart, myself or my abilities. In my mind, I was still that frail person, sitting on the couch, watching everyone else live their life.

Spencer Butte, Eugene, Oregon
Spencer Butte in Eugene, Oregon. (Photo by Dave Burdick)

My first summit alone was Spencer Butte in Eugene, Oregon. I almost turned around part way up, because I could feel my heart pounding. My driver for that hike was the need to capture a video on the summit, wishing my then 88-year-old Grandma a happy birthday. She had hiked all over the Northwest with my Grandpa throughout their marriage. Due to deteriorating health, it had been years since she was able to get out for a hike. Although this particular trail head is basically in her backyard, she had never actually been on this hike. That is how I decided this summit would be the perfect one to record my message. Not knowing how much longer she had, I knew this was potentially my last chance to make my way up.

I wasn’t fearless, I just did it scared.

Upon reaching the top, I looked around and was completely blown away by its beauty. I made it! My heart was strong enough to hike this steep trail head. I had completely forgotten about the 10 times I stopped along the way. I forgot about how many times I wanted to turn back.

I also forgot about the heart palpitations I had along the way. I just knew I was meant to be there.

I realized at that moment, even if I needed to do things alone, I had to follow my heart and find myself again in the outdoors.

Molly Hemphill climbing
Molly Hemphill said climbing saved her life and helped her find peace with herself. (Photo by Dave Burdick)

Before I was sick, I always allowed fear to control what I would and would not pursue. If it was uncomfortable and unknown, I walked away.

I decided that if I couldn’t beat fear, I was going to do it scared. There was too much life out there to live.

Climbing was my last hope in my journey to become healthy. I was still struggling through post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and self-doubt. I was still in a battle, trying to get back to the person I was before I was sick. As I continued to climb and get stronger, I realized something so important; I was never going to be the girl I was before. She died the night my heart stopped. I finally mourned the loss of myself. I made the decision to embrace the person I was meant to be.

I found my voice.

I admitted to having PTSD. I began climbing every day. I started talking about my congenital heart disease diagnosis.

I became proud of the person I was becoming and really started enjoying life again. I found myself laughing more, hanging out with different friends and feeling joy.

With every step forward I was taking into the unknown, I just kept climbing. I felt alive and almost unstoppable.

I am very much aware of how fragile my heart is, but I have a stoke in my soul that I never had before.

Through this experience, I realize healing happens outside of the hospital and separate from the daily medications that us cardiac warriors must take to stay alive.

Climbing saved my life and allowed me to find peace with myself and God. I found my rhythm outdoors on the rock. I have always known the fear of being sick, but I never knew the fear of being 100 feet up, outdoors with just a harness and rope keeping me safe.

I had visualized so many bad things happening to me when I was sick. It was all in my head.

When I was outdoors, the fear was real! I’m literally dangling from a granite slab and learning to safely rappel down to the ground. That is life and death. I had a huge panic attack the first time I did that – I will never forget that feeling. Immediately after that panic was a sense of calm. I breathed, took my time and safely made it down. After that day, I never had another panic attack about my health. I learned to breath and trust myself 100 feet in the air.

It was freeing.

I remember the landscape around me and was blown away that I was able to experience that. I was hooked.

Molly Hemphill looking at sky
"Am I scared of what is upcoming? Absolutely! But I am living rather than merely surviving," Molly Hemphill said. (Photo by Dave Burdick)

Upon returning home, I was training in the rock gym daily, becoming stronger and getting ready for competitions. Before I knew it, I was healthier and stronger than individuals without heart disease.

I now do pull-ups with my fingers tips, multiple push-ups and climbing routes that should not be possible for someone with a heart like mine. I learned to stop putting limits on myself, because there are some things that not even doctors can predict.

Last fall, I won my first Women’s Advanced bouldering competition – nodes, wires, heart monitor and all. It was my driver to do the best I could. I truly lived in that moment.

And now I know I have qualified for American Ninja Warrior and will compete on the show after I heal from a recent surgery on my shoulder.

Am I scared of what is upcoming? Absolutely! But I am living, rather than merely surviving.

The amount of time I have on this earth is unknown. Then again, isn’t that true for the entire population? As a heart disease patient, I feel lucky enough to know that. It allows me to take advantage of every moment.  I want to teach cardiac patients and PTSD survivors how to live again. It may look a little different than the life we used to have, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t just as good – it’s better. I can honestly say that I am happier today than I have been in my entire life. I will still have many trips to the hospital ahead of me, but again, that’s OK.

I’m living life, doing things outside of my comfort zone, and loving every minute of it.

I don’t take opportunities or people for granted because I know it can all be taken away in a heartbeat.

For those of you who are still struggling, I want you to know that I understand. I remember what it’s like to stay up all night, Googling for answers and hoping for one shred of documentation to create hope.

I know what it feels like to not find that hope online.

God, I remember how crushing it is to sit in the dark and accept that this life is it. The ache of hopelessness is real and suffocates every cell in your body.

I know how it feels to cry myself to sleep. I know the pain of losing every person in your support system because they struggle to understand why you can’t just “get over it.” I know how it feels to be alone and the emptiness it creates.

No one will ever understand, right? You’re isolated and just wanting to make it to tomorrow.

The truth is, I understand. I was broken too, just like some of you. My advice? Don’t shut people out. Allow yourself to be vulnerable and use every heart-crushing moment to fuel your soul. Don’t give up on yourself. You will be able to look back at your darkest moments and know that you are no longer living that life.

I believe in someday, because that day came for me.

If any of you are struggling, please reach out to me.

I don’t write and spread my message for “likes” and comments. I spread my message in hope that people will reach out as to not be alone. I was alone for too long and because of that pain I endured, I made it my mission to be there for people who are sick and need someone to speak with – who truly need someone that understands the pain and hopelessness associated with heart disease and other cardiac-related issues.

My only ask from you is that when you realize that you are living your own “someday,” you then become a resource for another heart patient. I had to do this alone, and I promised God that if I became healthy, I would do everything I could to reach as many individuals as possible so they didn’t have to do it alone.

Together, we can create a community of people helping other people.

If you have questions or comments about this story, please email [email protected].

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