By the time Brittany Steele was 8 years old, no one at the all-girls’ school she attended in Manhattan would even race her anymore. She was just too fast.
“You couldn’t join an organized sport until fifth grade,” Steele says. “So, I had always planned on joining an organized sport in fifth grade, and I was like, ‘OK, I’ll run track. I like running. Running is fun.’”
Steele set her aims high. One day, she was watching ESPN when she saw the Millrose Games, the world’s longest-running and most prestigious indoor track meet. It’s held in New York City every winter.
“I was like, ‘I am going to run that one day!'” Steele says.
But her body had other ideas.
“You Feel Very Helpless”
“Since, I would think since kindergarten, she’d always say, ‘Mommy, my heart, it hurts,'” says Dawn Steele, Brittany’s mom.
“She was little. She couldn’t really explain, she just — And this kept on going on for years. So after awhile, I said, ‘Something has to be wrong.’ But it would only last for like a few seconds.”
As Steele got older, she got better at explaining what was wrong.
“Like, chest pain or lightheadedness and dizziness, or like hearing my heart beat in my ears and feeling it racing in my chest for like a minute. Not that long but it was really scary when it happened, because you’re not really aware of your heart beat and then when you suddenly become aware of your heart beat, and the fact that it’s racing and there’s nothing you can do about it, you feel very helpless.”
Steele’s mom says the issue appeared inconsistently and sporadically.
“Sometimes you’d go for months—you don’t get it. And, sometimes, within a few weeks, you’d get it. It’s nothing that was consistent. And most of the time she got it she was very relaxed. It’s not when she was running or she was active. She’d just be sitting reading and that’s most of the times when it would act up.”
When Steele was in third grade, her mom took her to the doctor, who set out to solve the mystery of Steele’s racing heart. Until they had a diagnosis, she was told to stop exercising. The doctors didn’t want to run the risk that her heart raced so fast it stopped altogether. That meant no PE, no organized sports, no running. When Steele heard that, she broke down.
“Like, at first, it was like, “Don’t cry, don’t cry — screw it, I don’t care. I’m crying,'” she says. “And I was like bawling, like sobbing, like snot out the nose type crying. Like, I was very upset.”
“Taking away gym from her,” Steele’s mother says, “was like cutting off her arm.”
I actually remember having the thought one day, I was like, ‘I mean, if I do die, I’d rather die and have fun.’
The search for a diagnosis took two years. First, the doctors made Steele wear heart monitors for 24 hours at a time. But those monitors never caught anything, because she never happened to be wearing one when her heart started racing. Then, they gave her a monitor she had to carry around for three months in a coin purse. It was attached to sensors on Steele’s chest.
“There’s like this sticky gel stuff you use to stick on your chest in different places. You had to take off my shirt basically and my sister would, put them where they needed to go and she’d, like help me pull them off but you couldn’t pull it too fast, otherwise you’d end up with these rashes everywhere. It was just awful and really painful.”
One-Quarter of One-Percent
It wasn’t fun, but it was what gave the doctors the evidence they needed to diagnose what was wrong. Steele had Wolff-Parkinson-White, a rare condition that affects about one-quarter of one-percent of the population.
“Basically, what it means,” says Dr. Robert Pass, “is that a patient is born with an extra electrical connection between the upper and lower chambers of the heart.”
Pass is the physician who treated Steele. He says the problem with having an extra electrical pathway in your heart is that it can essentially short-circuit.
So, when Steele’s heart hurt, when she was dizzy or faint, this is what was happening.
“The electrical impulse is running between the upper and lower chambers,” Pass says, “around a little short circuit at very rapid rates, which is why your heart is beating so fast.”
The problem is, if your heart beats too fast, it can just stop. That means sudden cardiac arrest or death. But Steele wasn’t too concerned about dying. After all, she was just 11 years old. Death didn’t seem real to her.
“I was not scared at all. I knew cardiac arrest was bad and I knew death was bad but I was not actually afraid of dying. I was more concerned with like, you know, ‘Hey, I want to do this fun thing and I can’t do that fun thing.’ And —I actually remember having the thought one day, I was like, ‘I mean, if I do die, I’d rather die and have fun.’ I don’t want to be bored, like, have not gotten to do the stuff I wanted to do.
“It was also really sad being in fifth grade and watching everyone else start and join the track team, because it was the first year anyone could join an organized sport. And I was just like, ‘Man, this sucks.’ People would be running and sometimes I’d see them running and I’m like, ‘I am totally faster than you!'”
Steele wasn’t scared, but her mom was.
OK, God, I’m just going to trust you on this.
“I’d worry about it more, and I’d cry a lot,” she says. “I didn’t even share this with Brittany ’cause I didn’t want to scare Brittany, but as a mother there were days when I’d think about it, and I’m like, ‘Oh, my god, no.’ I’d try to think, ‘What can I do to help Brittany?’ But then there was nothing I could do.”
There are two ways to treat Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome. You can burn the extra heart pathway with an electrical current, or you can freeze it with liquid nitrogen. Pass decided he would freeze Steele’s, since the extra pathway was close to the normal one and he didn’t want to risk damaging the main pathway.
The day Steele went in for her operation, she was 11-years-old and terrified.
“I was like twitchy-panicky, which was concerning them,” she says. “I wasn’t like ‘panicking’ panicking.”
Pass fed one catheter up a vein in one leg and another catheter up the artery in the other. The catheters will deliver liquid nitrogen right to Steele’s heart.
While she was on the operating table, Steele’s mom was out in the waiting room.
“I was just like, “OK, God, I’m just going to trust you on this. I’m not going to worry. I’m not going to worry,'” she says. “I just tried to calm myself.”
Steele came out alive and well — and, after three months without heart palpitations, she was cleared for running in sixth grade. The first thing she did was sign up for the track team.
She was still the fastest girl at her school.
A Dream Realized
“My high school coach, Nicholas Galasso, coolest dude on the planet,’ says Steele, ‘one day, he was like, ‘Do you want to try to qualify for the Millrose Games?'”
Remember the Millrose Games? That was the track meet Steele had always wanted to run in.
“And I was like, ‘Are you serious?'” she says. “And he was like, ‘Yeah. Like, I think you could do it.’ And I was like, ‘Yes!’”
At the qualifying meet, Steele barely slipped into the 55m finals by .01 seconds. There were eight girls in the race, and she had to be in the top four to qualify for the Millrose Games.
“And I remember walking off the track and my coach wasn’t even watching the race. And I was like, ‘What do you mean you didn’t watch the race?’ And he’s like, ‘I couldn’t look! I was too nervous!’ And then we’re like both looking at the board and we just see my name like light up in fourth place and we were like, ‘Yes!'”
So Steele went to the Millrose Games in February of her senior year of high school.
“I came in seventh out of seven,” she says. “But I didn’t really care that much. I mean, I don’t know that I’m ever going to get a cooler experience. That was just such a big payoff.”
Steele’s now a successful sprinter and triple-jumper for Haverford College, in Pennsylvania. But her heart condition is still with her. She can’t take Tylenol or most cold medicines or drink caffeine. And she says she still gets heart palpitations every once in awhile, though doctors tell her the extra electrical pathway in her heart remains frozen. Despite all that, Steele keeps running.
“I view it as a gift that God gave me and I’m obligated to use. I don’t know how many people know what it’s like to literally be told that you aren’t going to be able to do something and then something changes and you can. And it’s like, well, yeah, I’m absolutely going to do it. I’m going to do it as much as I possibly can because this wasn’t even supposed to happen and now I can do it, so I want to take it as far as I can possible take it.”