Matt Krajniak: HRHS, 29

My name is Matt Krajniak. I was born with I was born with Pulmonary Ventricular Atresia (form of HRHS) and dextrocardia on November 19, 1990.

I had my Glenn, Norwood & Fontan at Lurie Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago, IL. Ever since I was born, I have been on Digoxin, Lisinopril & Baby Aspirin.

When I was born, single ventricle complications were quite unknown and unpredictable.

The common solution was an immediate heart transplant as the Fontan procedure was still considered controversial & dangerous.

Only a handful of Fontans were performed before me which stirred some debate between the doctors on which route to take for me. My surgeon had the confidence that the Fontan would be a better procedure and proceeded with the 3 surgeries over the next 3 years. I don’t remember anything from those first 3 years, but I spent a lot of those 3 years at the hospital under the careful watch of nurses, doctors & family.

Growing up from there, my family did their best to try to give me a normal childhood. The boy with the blue lips, that’s how people knew me.

Due to how relatively unknown mixture of my medications, post-fontan recovery & the unpredictability of CHDs, my doctors advised my parents about moderating my activity levels.

I grew up the youngest of 3 siblings who were completely healthy. As a kid, you don’t fully understand your condition, you know something is wrong. You know there is a reason you can’t participate in certain activities, a reason why you're smaller than most of the other kids. When my parents decided to put me in soccer when I was about 6 or 7, I was only allowed to play about 15 total minutes of the game, but for those 15 minutes, I finally started feeling normal.

My dad is a man’s man. State wrestling champion, varsity quarterback, & 2 black belts. When I was younger, I wanted to be as much as I could be like him. I grew up with a deep love for martial arts. I would watch my dad, brother and sister train from the waiting room and thought it was the most amazing thing ever. I didn’t know it at the time, but that laid the brick work for what would end up being an incredibly journey. Once I hit my teens and got to high school, things about me were definitely different.

My town wasn’t too large, so when high school came, everybody knew I had half a heart.

Some people treated me like a piece of glass, as if at any given moment my heart would burst or something. I participated in gym without any problems, I just wouldn’t run the mile. I just kind of held my head low and didn’t make much noise in high school. I knew that I was just there so that I could go somewhere else. While in high school, I did find out I had a natural talent for art. I took as many art classes as I could and knew that I wanted to pursue art as a career.

It wasn’t until after college that I started feeling the effects of not taking care of myself.

I was eating very, very poorly up until this point in my life. Ramen, a bag of chips, fast food more often than I’d like to admit. I wasn’t active, my word had me sitting at a desk for 8 hours, then I would go home and play games and eat chips for 8 hours. Plus during college, you don’t always pick up the best habits from your friends. I look back now and I’m honestly surprised I didn’t have some sort of cardiac arrest or a PE or something. I got lucky.

I remember I was driving somewhere when I felt my first palpitation. I got a sudden sharp pain in my chest, I could hear my heart pounding in my ears, it felt like my heart was standing still. I had someone call 911 and quickly found myself in the hospital. Luckily, they couldn’t find anything. It would turn out to be really bad palpitation and an anxiety attack in response.

The next 2 years would be the hardest time in my life.

Everything I felt; A palpitation, a panic switched turned on and I would call 911.

I was suffering from severe health anxiety. I found myself in the hospital 7 times in a year and a half only for the doctors to find nothing wrong. I was constantly afraid of my own heart. I developed a tick where I would check my pulse every minute to make sure my heart was beating. It was uncontrollable fear that my heart was about to give out randomly. My doctor did not want to give me anti-depressants / anti-anxiety medication as they tend to combat with digoxin and could develop an actual arrhythmic problem.

With hard work and a lot of support, I was able to beat my battles with anxiety. I started getting my life back on track. I was weight lifting 4-5 times a week. I started with very light weight and I increased the weight slower than normal. I started educating myself on heart healthy diets and supplements. I started taking a high quality protein and, with my doctor’s permission, and supported by recent studies on creatine therapy for recovering heart patients, I started taking creatine.

I was finally feeling like a healthy adult, but the journey didn’t even begin yet.

When I joined Rothwell MMA, I was definitely intimidated by the level of professional fighters and athletes there. I was afraid I was a little in over my head at this place. My first day there, I got so tired from just the 5 minute warm-up that I had to sit out, catch my breath, and explain my condition. The gym was very supportive and treated me like a family. After a few months there, my cardio ability was unbelievable. Not only was I completing classes without breaks, but I was training 3-4 hours a day. An hour of kickboxing, 2 hours of jiu-jitsu then and hour of sparring or strength training. I was, for the first time ever, able to run a mile and complete it in under 10 minutes.

Due to my blood thinners and the athletic commission, I would not be allowed to fight in an actual MMA fight. However, they said it was a possibility I could fight in a Pankration match. It’s the same rules as regular MMA, just no punches or kicks to the head. Through my dedication, I was made one of the coaches at Rothwell MMA. I prepare every day for my walk down to the cage where I dream to make something thought impossible, a reality.

My doctor has never been happier in my current health and does not foresee any issues for quite some time.