Flatline To Finish Line

Eight months after surgery, Ellen Charnley crossed the finish line in her first-ever Ironman triathlon.
Eight months after surgery, Ellen Charnley crossed the finish line in her first-ever Ironman triathlon.

In March 2010, Ellen Charnley underwent open-heart surgery at Cleveland Clinic's Miller Family Heart & Vascular Institute to fix six holes in her heart from a severe congenital heart defect that went undetected until age 41.

Eight months after surgery, she crossed the finish line in her first-ever Ironman triathlon. That’s 2.4 miles of swimming, 112 miles of biking and a 26.2 mile race.

In 2011, Ellen published a memoir about her experience. “I thought my story was over, but I think it is just beginning,” Ellen says of her involvement as one of the directors of IronHeart, a charitable organization that inspires others and raises awareness for cardiac issues.

“I thought my story was over, but I think it is just beginning.”

When IronHeart founder, David Watkins, asked Ellen if she would consider doing another Ironman, she wasn’t sure. “I thought I was one and done,” she says of her post-surgery feat.

“Our goal is to inspire others to lead a heart healthy lifestyle.”

But when the idea was presented to train with other cardiac patients and film the experience for a documentary movie, Ellen changed her mind. “I thought that was pretty powerful stuff,” she says. Ellen, David and six other athletes with heart conditions—every one of them had undergone at least one open-heart surgery—began to train and record their experiences. “It has become very much a project of passion,” Ellen says.

Of course, Ironman training is not “regular” exercise by any means. And when one of the cast members died from a heart-related incident and never made it to the starting line, Ellen and team began to seriously evaluate the message they were sending out through this project.

“The movie took on a new mission,” she says. “No longer were we gung-ho on doing the Ironman at all cost. We became more mindful and more careful about the message we wanted to portray. Our goal is to inspire others to lead a heart healthy lifestyle and encourage folks to get their hearts checked out by a physician. Ultimately we hope to save lives.”

Meanwhile, Ellen continues to be in good health. Though, the right side of her heart remains enlarged. “I’ll always be a patient,” Ellen says. “That is a tough concept to deal with mentally because I’m such a type-A driven person. But I’m starting to understand that and respect that. And I have to say, that was the last Ironman I’ll do.”

Related Institutes: Heart & Vascular Institute (Miller Family)
Patient Stories

Patient Stories

Alt text

Alive — and Thriving — Thanks to Cancer Research

Dec 7, 2017

“Enrolling in a clinical trial is one of the most altruistic things you can do — letting yourself be studied and scrutinized at an extremely high scientific level to help the patients of tomorrow.”
Read Story
Alt text

Four-Year-Old Boy Meets Lifesaving Liver Donor from Halfway Around the World

Dec 7, 2017

“When I saw (Becky), I just wanted to go hug her. How can I thank her for this precious gift? Because of her generosity, she saved my son’s life.”
Read Story
Alt text

Teacher Learns Valuable Lessons About Weight Loss

Dec 1, 2017

“Diets didn’t, don’t, and will never work for me. It was my lifestyle that needed changing... I feel so much better. I’m truly happy. I feel full of energy and I’m loving life!”
Read Story