Those who know Mandy Steele say the things they love most about her are her humble manner and big heart.
It was Mandy’s truly big heart – the one with thickened walls due to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy – that would lead her to a death-defying experience as she finished the final leg of a mini-marathon last year when she was 18, just a few weeks before she was scheduled to graduate from Haworth High School in Oklahoma.
Mandy’s heart had stopped, and she went more than 40 minutes without breathing. Doctors told her parents to brace for the worst.
“They said that if she lived, she could be in a vegetative state. They told us to be prepared for anything, but that more than likely, we were going to lose Mandy,” said her mother, Shanna Steele.
Mandy defied the odds and this month ran in the very same race in which she collapsed a year ago. While she did not run the half marathon, she completed her first 5K since nearly dying. Then she hopped over to the other course to finish the last leg of the mini-marathon from the year before.
“I’m pretty sure I was smiling the whole race,” Mandy said. “It felt great.”
Mandy, who serves as a Choctaw Nation District 1 Princess in Idabel, Oklahoma, has no recollection of what happened at the 2015 Vike Pike race in Poteau, Oklahoma. Her grandmother Lydia McClure, who drives Mandy to her races, saw her granddaughter make the final turn of the 13.1-mile run.
Home free, thought McClure, who then headed to the finish line to watch her granddaughter cross it. Only Mandy didn’t. McClure kept looking. She took a photo of a helicopter that was landing close by, thinking Mandy might like the helicopter.
Race volunteer Twila Bickford saw Mandy just a few moments after McClure had seen her. Mandy placed her hands on her thighs. Bickford thought the teen was out of breath. Less than a second later, Mandy collapsed. Bickford rushed to her side. Mandy wasn’t breathing.
“I started screaming, ‘I need some help! I need some help!’” Bickford said.
Two race workers who knew CPR rushed to Mandy’s side.
“I just prayed over her,” Bickford said. “I never knew how imperative those CPR volunteers are.”
McClure, who had gone back to the turn to look for Mandy, soon realized the person they were helping was her granddaughter. “They had people around her, I couldn’t get near her. I just lost it. All I could see was her foot.”
The helicopter that McClure had photographed was there to transport Mandy to Tulsa, more than 120 miles away.
Doctors told the family the situation was dire.
“They told us we needed to start thinking about long-term care,” said Shanna. Doctors placed Mandy in a drug-induced coma and used therapeutic hypothermia to protect her vital organs. “The doctor said she may never wake up, that she had been dead too long.”
Mandy hung on. Within a few days, the doctors took Mandy off the drugs. They warned her parents that it could be days before she showed any sign of life.
Within 20 minutes, Mandy moved a leg.
“We couldn’t believe it,” Shanna said. Within days, Mandy, although still intubated, was dancing in her bed.
Doctors implanted a pacemaker to treat Mandy’s heart condition. She was able to graduate on time from Haworth High, amid cheers and tears from the crowd, and plans to start college this fall.
Her other heart – that strong, gentle spirit – was in excellent shape. After months of rehabilitation, Mandy was determined to get back to the race where she had collapsed on March 28, 2015. Despite being admittedly scared, Mandy completed the 5K.
Bickford was there to see Mandy triumph this year. The crowd cheered under a blue sky as Mandy crossed the finish line and began hugging friends and family.
“It was so amazing,” Bickford said. “You kind of think it’ll be good, but it was more than good. It was beautiful. My heart was overflowing with joy.”