AUBURN, Wash. – Joanne Steele’s breakfast is a 10-course concoction of pills. If the medication fails to work, there is a pacemaker and defibrillator imbedded in her body ready to control the palpitation of her failing heart.
It’s become a daily ritual in Steele’s life, along with caring for her two daughters and coaching the Montana women’s golf team to its first bid in the NCAA women’s tournament. All the while, her name sits on a transplant list at the University of Washington Medical Center, and Steele patiently waits for a new heart that could prolong her life.
“I call it my breakfast,” Steele says of her morning ritual of taking up to 10 pills a day. “There’s every color in there.”
The 35-year-old Steele suffers from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy – a genetic disease that causes the heart muscle to abnormally thicken. There is no cure for the disease, and medication can only serve to treat complications that may develop, trying improve the quality of life to a certain degree.
A transplant remains the most viable option for future health. “That’s the route I have to take. (The doctors) don’t force you into that situation but they gave me the full scenario and I trust them,” Steele said on Wednesday as her Grizzlies prepared for the NCAA west region tournament.
Some people who have the disease go through life unaware they have the it because symptoms never develop. Steele lived her first 29 years without knowing – until the birth of her second daughter.
Short and petite, Steele put on 60 pounds during her second pregnancy, after gaining just 12 pounds with her first daughter. Sydnie was born two months early, but two weeks after her birth unaware colleagues continued to ask Steele when she planned to deliver.
“It made me open my eyes and say Joanne, obviously you don’t look good,”‘ Steele said.
And thus began Steele’s battle with the disease. It started with a battery of medication that managed the symptoms for about 31/2 years.
Eighteen months ago, the condition intensified as Steele began to experience atrial fibrillation – a rapid increase of heart rate. She was constantly fatigued and had spells of dizziness.
Her first episode of fibrillation lasted 10 days where her heart rate hovered around 200 beats per minute. As her heart sped, Steele could feel her other organs exerting trying to keep her body functioning. Last October, Steele reached her breaking point as she felt herself diminishing rapidly.
“The docs in Missoula, they’re great, but they wanted to take (a) wait-and-see approach,” Steele said. “But I could see what was happening. I didn’t think waiting was another option.”
After visiting a doctor in Helena, she was referred to Dr. Jeanne Poole in Seattle. Her first visit came in early November and by the end of the month, Steele and her husband, Cory, had made the seven-hour drive from Missoula to Seattle four times – and went home following the final trip with a pacemaker and defibrillator implanted in her chest.
Steele spent more time in Seattle that month than with her daughters in Montana, she said. Every day though, her players back in Missoula had a well-defined plan of what they needed to work on, even with their coach 475 miles away.
“She’ll leave for Seattle and she has everything set up for us all the time,” Montana senior Mary Hasselberg said. “She doesn’t think about herself. She puts us first, her family first all the time.
“She’s happy, all the time, no matter what’s going on.”
Steele was placed on the transplant list in December. When a heart becomes available, Steele has roughly four hours to get to Seattle. She has contacted private plane owners in Missoula and lined up transportation when the call finally comes.
In between her visits to the doctors in Seattle, Steele directed the Grizzlies to their finest season. She was selected as the Big Sky coach of the year by her peers, after Montana won its first conference championship. The Grizzlies won the conference tournament by eight shots, but were unaware of their standing until after Jasi Acharya sank her putt on No. 18 to card a 1-under 71.
Much like the calm demeanor of their coach, the Grizzlies accepted their title as though it was a common occurrence. The joyous screams were muted until the team drove away from the course.
“I’m a pretty mellow person, but I was definitely excited for them,” Steele said.
Advancing from the regional tournament is unlikely. The Grizzlies are seeded last of the 21 teams competing, and no Big Sky school has ever advanced to the NCAA championships.
On Wednesday, Steele walked the course with her players during their practice round. She’s a traditionalist who despises carts, but admits she could maybe walk just one hole while carrying her clubs right now.
And this from someone who use to walk 36 holes with no problem.
“To tell me to take a cart is really difficult,” Steele said.
She doesn’t know when the call will come informing her a new heart is available and doctors can not give her a timeline on how quickly her heart may diminish. According to the American Heart Association, there were 2,016 heart transplants in 2004 and females have a five-year survival rate of 68.5 percent.
Steele tries not to dwell on the situation and never brings it up with her players, yet will always answer questions regarding her condition. She could teach a class on cardiology with all she’s learned in the last six months, but Steele would rather spend her time on the golf course with her players.
“It’s good for me to get out, and do that and not feel I’m limited in what I can do,” Steele said. “I just need to be the strongest person I can each day.”