Kelly Naab has always been a person committed to living a healthy lifestyle.

So the last thing she expected was to have a stroke, let alone two stroke events.

Naab, 41, learned that life can change pretty quickly and unexpectedly.

“I was shook because I was living this healthy lifestyle and no risk factors for a stroke event,” said Naab, a Buffalo native and mother of two young boys. “It was shocking and scary.”

So when she opened an email from the Buffalo Marathon announcing the Kaleida Health Heart to Heart Relay to benefit cardiac programs at Buffalo General Medical Center/Gates Vascular Institute, she immediately was on board.

“The last three years, I did the half marathon, and I was hoping to do the full this year, but there was no way I was going to be able to even train for the half,” Naab said. “When I saw the email about the Heart to Heart Relay, I could not believe my eyes. It was going to benefit something that meant the world to me. I feel like they saved my life. I knew I had to do it. I feel so grateful to be able to it, no matter how fast or slow, just the fact that I’m able to participate. I feel so strongly about what Gates Vascular Institute has to offer.”

Naab will run one of four legs of the Buffalo Marathon course on May 26, joining the marathoners and half marathoners as they wind their way from the waterfront to Delaware Park and back to the heart of downtown.

The challenges for Naab began in December of 2013 when, at age 35, she suffered a transient ischemic attack, often referred to as a “mini-stroke.”

Then in July of 2018, Naab suffered a head injury that led to the discovery of an acute ischemic stroke. At that point, she was refereed to Dr. David Zlotnick and the Gates Vascular Institute.

Naab had a Patent Forman Ovale, a hole in her heart that didn’t close the way it should have after birth. It was discovered after her stroke event in 2013, but closure wasn’t recommended. Her PFO increased her risk for stroke and in October of 2018, she underwent the cardiac catheterization procedure at GVI to close the hole.

“I learned that life can change in a moment and to live each day to the fullest,” Naab said.

Fit doesn’t necessarily mean healthy

Dave McGillivray understands about life-changing health events.

The race director of the Boston Marathon, who has completed 156 marathons, including 47 consecutive Boston Marathons, has been through his own heart-related health issues.

McGillivray was diagnosed with coronary artery disease in October of 2013.

“My initial emotional response to hearing that I have coronary artery disease was just, to be blunt, embarrassment,” McGillivray said. “I was embarrassed. My whole life, I projected this image of somebody who’s not only fit, but is really healthy. My philosophy was always if you’re fit, you’re healthy and after 50 years of going at this, I realized maybe I was wrong. Just because you’re fit doesn’t necessarily mean you’re healthy.”

See, while McGillivray has been a lifelong runner, he wasn’t always the best at healthy eating. Like many endurance athletes, there’s a feeling of earning food after a long run. And that took a toll on McGillivray’s cardiac health, particularly when combined with a strong family history of heart disease.

“It wasn’t that I ignored my family history. It’s that I thought I was the exception to the rule,” he said. “I was the only one in the family that was really athletic. I guess, no pun intended, I thought I could run away from it.

“When I was diagnosed, I also recognized where I broke a lot of rules. And this is where the embarrassment comes in. Nutrition-wise, a lot of us feel if the furnace is hot enough, it will burn everything. I’d go out and run 20 miles and come home and have that ice cream. I’ve earned it. It’s my reward. And you get in that mindset that it’s OK when really it isn’t.”

So McGillivray went about paying attention to the rules, as he calls it, for healthier living. He adapted his eating. He got more sleep. Lifestyle changes had reversed his disease by nearly 40 percent. By January of 2017, he was completing the World Marathon Challenge – running seven marathons in seven days on all seven continents. He was feeling good.

That is until February, when he began to feel discomfort again. His main artery was 80 percent blocked.

“The second diagnosis was almost worse than the first,” McGillivray said. “I had made all the changes and invested a lot in this. Why did this happen? But I spun it around. After going through the stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, eventually I got to acceptance. I’m one of the lucky ones. I got a second chance. Others go out for a run and they don’t come home. I’m able to do something about this.”

The silver lining

McGillivray had triple bypass surgery on Oct. 12 and slowly worked his way back to complete his 47th Boston Marathon in April.

He will be in Buffalo during marathon weekend May 24-26 to share his story, something he has grown comfortable doing, and to run in the Heart to Heart Relay. McGillivray wants to take his time recovering from Boston before tackling another 26.2 miles. But rather than feel defeated, McGillivray feels invigorated.

“Once I’m fully recovered and healed from the surgery, I wonder what I could run,” he said. “I know I’m getting older, but I still think I have some good days left and that’s what I’m looking forward to. I could have been diagnosed, had the surgery and packed it in, saying I had a good run for 50-some years and 150,000 miles. But for me, it’s just the opposite. I’m excited to see what I can do.”

Naab understands that mentality. After her first stroke event, she completed the Buffalo Half Marathon in 2016, 2017 and 2018, getting faster each time. By the time she turned 40 in 2018, she felt she was in the best shape of her life.

Then came the second stroke event that led to her heart surgery. She went through a similar process as McGillivray, coming out the other side with the same positive outlook.

“At one point in August, I felt like I was a ticking time bomb,” Naab said. “I wondered why me. I felt pretty defeated.  I could have thrown in the towel on living an active lifestyle, but I decided it wasn’t going to stop me. And when I knew I could have my procedure done in Western New York, that was incredible. I’m on my way back to living a completely normal life. It’s amazing.”