Soccer Star or Miss America?

Soccer Star or Miss America?

Michaela Gagne, Falls River, MA – 15 at time of event (1998)

Miss Massachusetts As a teenager Michaela was not thinking about crowns and gowns. She preferred shorts and boots—soccer boots that is. Despite her ambition to be a Division 1 player Michaela was crowned Miss Massachusetts in 2006 and went on to compete for the title of Miss America 2007. Her platform issue was Heart Health: Listen, Learn, and Live. How is it that a self-confessed tomboy suddenly started entering beauty pageants?

LongQT Syndrome is the answer. At the tender age of fifteen years Michaela collapsed on the track field. She felt fine, and nothing could be found wrong with her at the hospital. Sure she was hypoglycemic, normally had low blood pressure, plus a slight heart murmur due to MVP*, but all the tests could not determine the cause of her collapse. An echocardiogram, EKG, heart stress test, and even an electrophysiology study did not reveal the reason—she was asymptomatic. It took six months for a genetic test to conclusively identify her problem. Michaela suffered from a disorder of the heart’s electrical rhythm called LQTS type 2.

“Could it be real?” Michaela asked herself. “I was a three season athlete; soccer, basketball, and track & field. Everyone was more worried than I was!” That one collapse was her first indication that a sports career was not possible. It didn’t seem fair, but the endless visits to doctors and hospitals ended with a pronouncement that she was sidelined. She finished high school and looked deep inside herself.
“I decided to concentrate on what I had, not on what I didn't have.” A friend had suggested she consider the Miss Fall River pageant saying that Micheala was beautiful inside and out. Michaela was most comfortable wearing jeans, t-shirts and certainly not make-up and high-heels, but the contest provided her with an opportunity.

“Walking into the interview I told the judges I was going to educate the public about lethal heart conditions. And that my goal now was to save lives, because these conditions exist, they can be diagnosed, and lives are being lost for no [good] reason. You can have AEDs, you can educate people on SCA. For me that was therapy.” Michaela said with pride. “Pageants became a new sport for me!”

It wasn’t until two years later that Michaela became aware of a way to return to the sports she loved so much. Her mother had been researching the causes and treatments for LongQT, and suggested an ICD might be the solution. Armed with this new information Michaela felt emboldened.

“I walked into my doctors office and said ‘Okay, if you give me one of these metal things in my chest, then will you let me play sports?’ He was used to dealing with 65-year-olds, the typical ICD recipients, not a 17-year-old demanding one so she can play sports again,” Michaela said with a chuckle.

She continued her stage appearances, realizing that people listened to her story and that her audience was substantial.

“You put a crown on your head and people want to listen. So I used it as a megaphone to say SCA is real, these conditions are real, get checked. Make sure your schools are safe with AEDs,” Michaela said confidently. She has competed in around sixteen pageants, and maintained the same platform: Heart Health: Listen, Learn, and Live.

“I’m doing a lot of work in AED fundraising. I can see a funny pageant working in schools@mdash;maybe the teachers are competing and the kids get to vote on who wins,” Michaela suggested. “You could make it a fun afternoon or evening with families involved and raise some money. AEDs are so inexpensive now.” “I just did a fundraiser for the Fall River Soccer club to purchase an AED. We did a spaghetti lunch, right after the game one Saturday. With 800 kids in the league, we raised enough to do CPR training as well!” Michaela said.

When not on stage or the field, Michaela works as an art teacher at St. Vincent’s Home, a residential/educational facility for children in need. She is also a MIAA certified high school coach, and a certified CPR/AED trainer. You can see what she’s doing here.

 -Jeremy Whitehead

* MVP Mitral Valve Prolapse is a prevalent but uncommon complaint affecting the valve between the left atrium and left ventricle.

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