Those closest to her were the first to spot a change in Dannika Mechtel. But it wasn't until the young gymnast's balance beam scores began to drop that she started to see what others had been noticing. The high level of competitive energy Dannika typically displayed throughout her gymnastics meets was beginning to wane.
After a visit with her local physician, Dannika learned the surprising reason for her dwindling energy. She'd been born with Ebstein anomaly, and the rare congenital heart defect was beginning to take its toll.
The condition was robbing Dannika's tricuspid valve — the valve between her heart's right atrium and right ventricle — of its ability to function properly. Blood had begun to leak back through the abnormally formed valve. That forced Dannika's heart to work harder to pump blood, and it triggered the uncharacteristic fatigue that was creeping into her gymnastic performances.
After discussing the diagnosis, Dannika's physician explained that Dannika would need corrective surgery once the symptoms of the heart defect progressed to the point that they significantly disrupted her quality of life.
That day came two years ago, when Dannika was 11. She and her family turned to Joseph Dearani, M.D., a cardiovascular surgeon at Mayo Clinic's Rochester campus. "He's so nice and so caring," Dannika says of Dr. Dearani. "And also really funny."
Dr. Dearani is well-versed and highly skilled in the specialized surgical techniques required to reverse the effects of Ebstein anomaly. Since he performed the surgery, Dannika says she's experienced the health benefits of Dr. Dearani's expertise firsthand.
"Everything's good right now," she says. "I feel like I'm pretty much back to normal and back to my old self."
At some point in the future, it's likely Dannika will need a second heart surgery to control the effects of her heart defect. When that time comes, she says she'll be coming right back to Mayo Clinic.
"Mayo's super-amazing. Everyone's just so nice and so caring. They really go out of their way to make you feel special and to take really great care of you," Dannika says. "For me, coming to Mayo helped make a bad experience better because I was surrounded by people who wanted to take care of me and people who did a really good job of doing that."
Watch Dannika and Dr. Dearani discuss her heart surgery experience at Mayo Clinic in this video: