A year ago, Jillianne Code could barely walk half a block without gasping for breath.

Twelve months and one heart transplant later, the 38-year-old just finished the eight-kilometre road race at the Victoria Marathon on Thanksgiving weekend.

"I did pretty good, I have to say! I'm pretty proud," she said.

Code was diagnosed with heart failure 10 years ago. But in that time, she managed to finish a PhD program at Simon Fraser University, a post-doctoral program at Harvard, landed a job as an assistant professor, got married and completed three other five kilometre runs — with her survival very much in question all the while.

Running the Victoria Marathon on Sunday has given her plenty to be thankful for, she says.

10 years of suffering

Code received the diagnosis of heart failure after three weeks of illness 10 years ago. She was 28 and says it changed everything for her.

Despite attempts to manage her condition, her doctors said a transplant was likely in her future.

"It was devastating. Absolutely devastating news," she said. "They told my husband, 'The next 72 hours are touch and go. You need to get her family here and think about these things.' … When I saw their faces I knew this was really a big deal."

Code

Jillianne Code lies in a bed at St. Paul's Hospital after her heart pump surgery in 2014. (Jillianne Code/submitted)

She said any energy she did have went into school. Her doctors wanted her to put off her PhD program, but she says she was stubborn and didn't want to quit.

"Mentally, it was a way for me to channel my energy," she said. "As my heart was failing and everything was failing, my brain wasn't and I wasn't going to let it. That was my mentality for better or for worse."

Her condition stabilized as she was finishing her PhD program at SFU, and she and her husband moved to Boston for her post-doctoral work. But while she was there, her heart problems grew worse, and she needed to have a defibrillator installed in her body. She says she was also fitted with a heart pump typical of people expected to live six months or less.

Code then spent 13 months on a heart transplant waiting list before she had surgery. She says life with her new heart has been incredible — but she got off to a rough start.

She had complications after the surgery and spent eight days in a coma. She said she couldn't walk afterwards and had to work during her recovery to get mobile again.

But six months later, she did her first five kilometre fun run. Six months after that, she took on her biggest challenge yet in Victoria.

And on Thanksgiving weekend, a time when thankfulness is front of mind, she's thinking about the person who gave her a heart and the family of that person.

"There aren't enough words in any language to describe the completely selfless act of my donor and my donor family," she said. "They've given me and my family and my husband the greatest gift. They've given me life again."


To hear the full story, click the audio labelled: One woman's journey: heart transplant to road races in 1 year