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A heartfelt run

Kroenlein hitting New York City streets for 1st marathon

E Farrell photo

More often than not, 41-year-old Johanna Kroenlein forgets about the small piece of titanium that’s been in her heart since she was 12. These days, however, it’s all that’s on her mind.

Kroenlein, a 1992 Scarsdale High School graduate, was hospitalized several times for asthma when she was in elementary school and when she was in middle school doctors found a heart murmur that was increasingly pronounced. A pediatric cardiologist in New York City diagnosed her with patent ductus arteriosus or PDA. At the time in 1987, open heart surgery was the route taken for PDA patients. Kroenlein’s parents, looking to avoid such a drastic measure, found an experimental procedure being performed by Dr. James Lock at Boston Children’s Hospital. “I guess they told my mom they were going to crack me open and my mom kind of panicked,” Kroenlein said.

Kroenlein was around the 35th person ever to have the catheterization closure, which uses a spider device that causes scar tissue to form around the impacted duct to counter the murmur, and she was the first noninfant to have the procedure. The risk, doctors said, was a potential infection when she turned 30, but that was so far down the road and considered minor.

“When we went up there I knew that if the procedure didn’t work I was going to have open heart [surgery],” Kroenlein said. “I think that was the only time I got nervous, sitting there in the doctor’s office talking about how if this didn’t work what was going to happen. I was standing and I sat down, thinking, ‘This is real.’ My parents were pretty stoic because it wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized they must have been nervous. At the time I had no idea. I was just a kid.”

As long as Kroenlein could eat, drink and walk following the procedure she was free to go home that day, which she did, with the support of family and then-minister from Hitchcock Presbyterian Church in Scarsdale Bob MacLennan by her side.

“The fact that it wasn’t a big deal was huge because I’m sure I’d be able to tell you all sorts of details if I went through open heart surgery, but the fact that they were able to do a noninvasive thing at the time for something everyone else was getting open heart for, I was pretty lucky,” Kroenlein said. “I was out for a few weeks and then I was able to get back into things once it was healed.”

The only times it has come up in her life since is when she was 29 and about to have her first child and a few years ago when she had pneumonia. Other than that it has been smooth sailing for the California resident.

“I wasn’t paying attention and they said there’s a shiny spot,” Kroenlein said of a chest X-ray. “I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, I have a piece of titanium.’ That fact that you forget you have titanium in your body is a testament to how innovative the procedure was at the time.”

Almost three decades later, Kroenlein, a former teacher and now a mother of four — she and husband Keith Ducker have Gavin, 11, Tommy, 9, Zola, 6, and Samia, 3 1/2 — has decided it’s time to give back. On Sunday, Nov. 1, she will run in the New York City Marathon, her first full-length marathon, to raise money for the hospital that changed her life. Kroenlein is running for Boston Children’s Hospital’s Miles for Miracle Team and has been paired up with former BCH patient Elliot, a Long Beach, Calif., 6-year-old, who serves as added inspiration. Brother-in-law Rob Schlein will also run for BCH.

Elliot was born without a portion of his esophagus. He couldn’t eat the first six-plus months of his life and spent time across the country at BCH undergoing many surgeries.

Kroenlein was required to raise $3,000, set a goal of $5,000 and has already broken $8,000. (Visit http://fundraise.childrenshospital.org/goto/jk.)

With the help of a couple of dozen middle school volunteers, Kroenlein held a Fun Day for children at her house as a fundraiser. About 75 kids ages 4-7 attended and played at various stations and learned about Elliot and BCH. In three hours, $1,500 was raised.

“For a small town it was a big outpouring,” Kroenlein said. “As they moved through the stations the goal was for them to understand, No. 1, that there’s this hospital out there that helps little kids just like them who need medical care, and I also wanted to give them an understanding that even if you’re 6, 7 or 8, that they have the ability to make a difference in someone’s life.”

She also wanted her own children to learn some valuable lessons. “I didn’t want my kids to just think I was running a marathon to raise money — I wanted them to experience what Boston Children’s Hospital means to me and what it means for other kids,” Kroenlein said. “They see mom’s running like always, but now it’s for something special.”

Running is nothing new for Kroenlein, who used to trail her brother and father for 5 a.m. runs at the Scarsdale High School track. The asthma was holding her back until late middle school/ninth grade when she learned to run with it, learned to use her inhaler preventatively.

In high school, Kroenlein played two years of field hockey and three years of lacrosse for Penny Sallinger and ran track for Rich Clark and Andy Verboys, including the 1,000-meter leg of the medley relay team that took second in New York State.

By sophomore year she was Sallinger’s fastest player and that’s when she decided to do indoor track between field sport seasons. And when she wasn’t playing sports she was running. “Once I figured out I was good at it, it just became my mental escape,” Kroenlein said. “I was running year-round in my spare time.”

At Princeton, she played a year of field hockey and four years of lacrosse, where the team made the Final Four each year and won the national championship her sophomore year in 1994.

Five to eight miles was Kroenlein’s typical running distance as an adult, but when her fourth child was born she started to look for a new challenge and was drawn to the Big Sur Half-Marathon, which is literally in her backyard in Pacific Grove, Calif., a small town that also happens to be inhabited by Hilary Howard, the Scarsdale and Duke basketball star whom Kroenlein used to babysit. (Howard’s daughter Landry and Kroenlein’s Samia were born just days apart and spent time in the hospital together.)

This will be the first time in four years that Kroenlein won’t be running Big Sur as it’s a week after the New York Marathon.

“I’m in for an eye-opener this weekend,” Kroenlein said. “I never planned on doing a marathon. My sister, Emily, called me last spring. She’s been donating to Boston Children’s Hospital because she remembers going through it as a sister. She called me last April and asked if I thought about doing a marathon. I said, ‘Not really,’ but the combination of it being a challenge and having children who are the age I was when I had the procedure and the fact that it was New York, there was no way I was going to say no. I just remember as a kid looking up to the New York City Marathon. I felt like the stars were aligned to have this opportunity.”

Just like she had support as a 12-year-old in Boston, her family will be with her in the city this weekend.

“I hear the crowds are amazing and the energy of the day really carries you,” Kroenlein said. “I’m excited to take that all in and see where I can go in 26.2 miles. I’m excited for my kids. Big Sur is a beautiful run and the turnaround point is literally a block from my house. For them to see something, there’s nothing like New York.”

A bout with plantar fasciitis — heel pain — will slow down Kroenlein’s time, but not her resolve.

“I’m definitely going to be able to complete it, but it’s a matter of resetting expectations for time,” she said. “I’ve realized through the process it’s more about giving my kids an opportunity to see that you can go out and make a difference for people.”

Read more local coverage of your hometown in this week’s issue of The Scarsdale Inquirer. Newsstand copies are available at several locations listed above, or subscribe today for convenient home delivery.


October 30, 2015