ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Yasmin Mullings just wrapped up three grueling back-to-back criminal trials and was training for a marathon when she found herself with a sick feeling she couldn’t shake.
The St. Paul Pioneer Press reports that the longtime Ramsey County assistant attorney took a couple days off work to recuperate and thought the worst was behind her when she hopped on a treadmill for a workout.
After a half-mile, the longtime runner could barely breathe.
“I was like, ‘Boy, I am out of shape,'” Yasmin recalled. She figured the change she made in her training schedule to accommodate her trial hours had eaten away at her edge.
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“So I switched to the bike and did some other stuff, and a few days later, I got back on the treadmill. . I could barely run,” Mullings said.
The peculiarity was the start of a sudden decline for the 52-year-old New York native in the winter of 2016.
Up until that point she was known for her optimum physical health and fierce commitment to running and her work. She’s crossed eight marathon finish lines, completed twice as many half-marathons and is known for working 19-hour days when her job demands it.
Her career was spent prosecuting complicated, often heart-wrenching cases involving women and children as victims.
Mullings fruitlessly visited her doctor’s office four times seeking answers while her energy levels tanked and her breathing worsened. After blacking out during a hearing in a Ramsey County courtroom, she went to the emergency room.
The doctors there were also perplexed, but Mullings knew something was very wrong.
“I would prop myself up to sleep at night but I would slide back down and wake up feeling like I was drowning,” Mullings said.
At the urging of a friend, she called Mayo Clinic in Rochester. After a battery of tests, she finally had an answer.
A flu virus — viral myocarditis – had infected the otherwise healthy woman’s heart, causing fluid to build up that her heart couldn’t pump out.
“The cardiologist comes in the room and says, ‘I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is we know what’s wrong with you. The bad news is you are in end-stage heart failure,'” Mullings said. “I remember being like, ‘Say what?'”
Rounds of treatment failed to address the issue. At one point Mullings was sent home with a LifeVest that would resuscitate her if her heart gave out. Later, she was advised she would need a defibrillator.
Nothing helped. Mullings was constantly dizzy and could barely walk more than a few steps at a time without losing her breath.
She mourned her independence and quality-of-life and found herself pushing back against interventions that would buy her nothing more than time.
In June 2016, doctors informed her she needed a heart transplant, and soon, or she would die. She was added to the waiting list but was told it could take a year to get her a donor.
The news was stunning and disorienting, especially as Mullings learned the transplant was not a cure, and that the kind of quality-of-life that awaited her on the other side was uncertain.
But the doctors told her it was her best chance.
“I think there is this thing that happens in situations like these where this is a recognition that this is out of your control,” Mullings said of how she processed the news. “I have always been somebody who has had a lot of confidence in my faith and my toughness and my ability to fight. . So it was like this recognition that I had come to the end of myself. That there was nothing I could do.”
The realization left her feeling strangely peaceful, she said.
“I knew I had lived a really good life. I had done all the things I wanted to do. . I got to look at the people who had been there and say, ‘I love you.’ . So I felt as if I was actually being given this gift,” Mullings said. “Because this wasn’t something that was sudden like getting hit by a bus. . I had time to try and understand it.”
Weeks later, she learned she could get transferred to Mayo’s hospital in Phoenix, where the wait time was drastically shorter.
On July 20, 2016, her doctors visited her Arizona hospital room and told her they had a heart. It was about five months after her own started pounding half a mile into her treadmill workout back in Minnesota.
“I remember my doctor takes my hand and says, ‘We are ready to do this.’ . And then they wheeled me in and I started counting backward and the next thing I knew I could hear my sister’s voice.”
Days later, after she was transferred out of the intensive care unit, one of the nurses asked Mullings if she had a chance to listen to her new heart.
“He got out his stethoscope and I listened and I just lost it,” Mullings said. “It was absolutely the most amazing thing I had ever heard. It was strong. It was steady. It wasn’t racing. . It was just like, ‘Wow.'”
Big gold hoops dangle from Mullings’ ears as she recounts what happened to her inside a busy Dunn Bros. in St. Paul.
Her lipstick matches her bright pink dress. Her hair is curly and wild.
She is stylish, loud and funny. She talks incessantly. She doesn’t strike you as someone who is sick, though her body has remained in some stage of rejection of her new heart since shortly after the surgery.
She tears up only occasionally as she tells her story: When she describes her older sister wailing when she found out Mullings would need a transplant. When she remembers lying alone in her hospital room trying to decide what kind of life-saving measures she wanted if her surgery didn’t go as planned. When she speaks about the loss the family and friends of her donor had to bear for her to get a new heart.
She doesn’t know who her donor is and will only find out if his or her family chooses to allow it.
“I know a lot of strong women. I think being in the profession we’re in we are surrounded by them, but Yasmin is truly one of the strongest I know,” said Karen Kugler, an assistant Ramsey County attorney and one of Mullings’ colleagues.
Her older sister, Grace Mullings, echoed Kugler.
“It’s been scary for me to watch because she is my younger sister. . but it’s been enlightening to see her courage,” Grace Mullings said. “People think a heart transplant is a cure, and it’s not, there are still a lot of ups and downs and she has shown so much grace through all of it. . I’m in awe of her strength.”
Comments praising her tenacity have poured into her CaringBridge site from other family and friends, judges, attorneys, probation officers — even defendants she’s sent to prison.
Mullings credits much of her perseverance to her faith.
She says she never expected a miraculous recovery but that it’s given her comfort to trust that whatever happens, good or bad, is divinely ordered.
“I am not one of those people that believe only good things happen,” Mullings said. “Kids die, they didn’t do anything; accidents happen. We live in a fallen world, but I know no matter how bad things are, I am not on my own.”
The experience has also forced her to redefine what strength means and accept that she has limits. Where before quitting was her “anathema,” she is fitfully learning to bail out of a run early if her body calls for it or stay in bed when it feels too hard to get out.
More than a year after her transplant, Mullings still frequents the hospital for testing to monitor her fragile heart. Her immune system sees the organ as a foreign object and fights against it, meaning her doctors are constantly adjusting her medications to keep its attack at bay.
She has no idea how long she has. Some people live up to 30 years with a new heart; others don’t make it out of the hospital.
“I have had 14 more months than I anticipated, so it’s a win,” Mullings said. “I have had my struggles, but I have been able to spend time with my family, friends, work. I have been able to do the things I wanted to do.”
Knowing that’s how she’s always lived her life has also given Mullings a sense of resolve about her future.
“I did a chronology of my life and all the decisions I made and I asked myself if there was anything I would do differently, and I could not think of one thing,” Mullings said. “I have fought battles I wanted to fight, I have done work I care about and love, I have taken chances. I moved from New York to Minnesota for love, it didn’t work out, but I stayed. I’ve traveled.
“So when this happened, I wasn’t going, ‘Geez, I wish I had like a year to do all of this,’ because I’ve lived my life the way I’ve wanted,” she continued. “That’s what I want for everybody. . If there is something you want to do, as long as you’re not hurting anybody, do it. Don’t wait.”
That’s why Mullings plans to keep running. It’s one way she can hold on to some control while continuing to push boundaries, arguably her favorite pastime.
She’s quick to point out that there is no “handbook” for how to return to long-distance running after a heart transplant. Most people who get them aren’t runners in the first place, Mullings said.
“Running keeps me sane,” she said. “I am slow as a turtle now, but getting out there and relying on my body to do something when everything else about this process is the exact opposite, it’s the only thing I have found that has given me back power.”
She refused to drop out of the 10-mile she’d signed up for at MedtronicTwin Cities Marathon despite feeling unusually rundown in the days leading up to it.
She promised herself she wouldn’t compete if she woke up without enough oomph, but she felt good that morning and headed to the course.
She ran the whole way, with another assistant Ramsey County attorney alongside her to make sure she was OK.
It’s the longest race she’s competed in since her transplant.
When she crossed the finish line, all her supporters were crying. Mullings was beaming.
“It would have never crossed my mind that a year later I could do that,” she said. “I mean I left (Arizona) in a wheelchair, and I just ran 10 miles, a year later. It just absolutely blew my mind.”
Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press, http://www.twincities.com