A Congenital Heart Defect Couldn’t Stop This Philly Spin Instructor From Pedaling
After teaching spin for 15 years, Hope Nagy needed emergency open heart surgery. Now, she inspires others to keep their hearts pumping — particularly at CHOP's Philly Spin-In.
More than 20 years have passed since Hope Nagy took her first spin class at her local gym. At the time, Nagy was trying to shed the last pounds of “baby weight” from her second pregnancy. So when one of the gym’s employees suggested she “try this new thing called spin,” Nagy hopped on a bike and pedaled until she realized she’d given her heart to an exercise regimen.
She had no way of knowing how true that would be. Flash forward 15 years, and Nagy, a seasoned indoor cyclist turned instructor, found herself short of breath and fatigued. Doctors claimed she was fine, chalking up her low energy and breathing troubles to stress and menopause. But Nagy knew something wasn’t right with her body. Eventually, she discovered she had a congenital heart defect known as a bicuspid aortic valve (BAV), which caused her heart to enlarge and develop an aneurysm. Had it not been caught in time, Nagy’s heart would have burst.
Ultimately, Nagy’s persistence saved her life. In 2015, she underwent emergency open heart surgery. Because of the active lifestyle she’d kept up for more than a decade, she quickly recovered and was back to teaching spin classes two weeks later. (She now teaches spinning at Crunch Fitness and runs her own personal training business in Conshohocken.) And, this weekend, Nagy will participate in the third annual Philly Spin-In, a two-day indoor cycling party hosted by Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) to raise awareness and funds for children born with congenital heart disease.
In advance of the event on March 9th and 10th, we talked with Nagy about her life with BAV, her drive to help others, and how the Philly Spin-In has brought her congenital heart journey full circle.
BWP: What events led to your open-heart surgery?
Nagy: In my 40s, I started becoming short of breath and was really tired. At first I thought I was overtraining, so I cut back on some [fitness] classes. But the problem continued. I kept telling doctors something was wrong, but they dismissed me for six years. I think they looked at someone like me —an active fitness professional — and didn’t see ‘sick.’
I finally went to see a new doctor, who ended up listening to my heart at the end of our consultation. When he heard a heart murmur, he didn’t want to take any chances. He scheduled an echocardiogram, which is how we discovered I had a BAV and an aortic aneurysm. I was shocked.
The doctor explained to me that all the cardiovascular classes I taught and did made my heart super healthy but [also] caused it to keep growing. He told me there wasn’t enough space in my body for a big heart, and that it was like a pipe about to burst. He couldn’t believe I had made it to 50, so he and I both knew it was urgent that we get things under control. That meant open heart surgery.
How has your diagnosis impacted your fitness?
I should have died in my 40s with my heart condition. I made it to 50 and am still alive because of what I do physically. I always say that a genetic defect gave me a bad valve, but spinning gave me a strong, healthy heart. When it came time for my surgery, I realized I had been training my heart for that very moment because [up to that point] I had been making it the strongest it could be to survive.
That’s why I knew I couldn’t give up spinning after my surgery. Knowing that heart disease is the number one killer of women makes me work out like my life depends on it… because it does. Each year, the heart gets weaker and weaker, so I continue to spin and train to keep my heart as strong as possible. I know that I’m going to need another surgery in the future, so spinning helps me monitor my heart rate while still having fun and enjoying life.
A party on a bike to stay alive! Coincidentally, that’s also the aim of CHOP’s Philly Spin-In. How did you get involved?
A friend of mine is a nurse in CHOP’s cardiac intensive care unit. She called me three years ago [before the inaugural event] and was like, “Hope, this has your name written all over it.” So she gave me [contact info for Amanda Calabrese, who was running the event.] Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to participate that first year because it was shortly after my surgery, when I was only teaching classes on foot [off bike]. Amanda and I kept in touch, and last year I was honored to be a lead instructor.
What was that experience like?
It was incredible. As a lead instructor, I rode on the podium at the front of the room with another lead instructor. (There are two leads for each session). In the hour I led, I was feeding off the riders’ energy. I saw doctors and nurses in the front row and family members and friends throughout the room — all pedaling for a purpose. The vibe is so for the kids, and you can literally feel the energy.
And you’re back again this year?
Yes, as a podium rider (which means I’m not leading a class). But I am bringing a team of 28 riders, who have heard me say for a year how much fun I had at last year’s event. Our goal is to raise as much money as possible, so that children and parents have peace of mind. No parent should have to hear the words, ‘Your child has congenital heart disease,’ and Team HopeHeartStrong is riding to put an end to that.
What’s your favorite part of Philly Spin-In?
I love how emotional it is! While spinning is great, of course, I actually love meeting the kids and parents. That’s why I’m really there. Last year, after I taught my session, Yael [Gross Rhode, a SoulCycle and Spin-In instructor] got me to tell my story to some of the attendees. I was so grateful for the number of parents who came up to me, hugged me, and told me how I much I inspired them. To me, that’s what it’s about. If I can do anything, I want to show parents that a person with a congenital heart defect can function and live their life.
If you could offer one piece of health and wellness advice for others, what would it be?
Stop ignoring the signs! For too long, doctors dismissed my shortness of breath and exhaustion. But they were warning signs to me because I know my body. I knew what I was feeling wasn’t right — that something was physically wrong with me. I encourage everyone to be your own health advocate and get your hearts checked. We all think we’re indestructible, but we’re not.