The Physics of Perseverance: Melissa’s Cardiac Comeback Story

Heart health
Success Stories
September 6, 2023

Melissa Ziebell, pictured, is an optical engineer and resident of Pasadena, CA who has a health story that encapsulates the power of resilience and the will to overcome adversity. Her path to better health began with a simple goal — to shed excess weight and have a healthier lifestyle overall. Little did she know that her pursuit of well-being would lead her to uncover an unexpected challenge and propel her on an extraordinary journey.

During her time as an undergraduate in the United States, Melissa had a struggle many students can relate to: she battled with weight gain due to a hectic schedule and a lack of quality food options. When she completed her bachelor’s, she decided to take a leap and relocate to Paris, France, where she pursued advanced degrees in the field of physics. This change of scenery gave her a fresh perspective and ignited a desire within her to start making some real positive changes. 

Embracing change overseas

In Paris, Melissa slowly developed better eating habits and incorporated regular exercise into her daily routine. She began losing weight and decided the next logical step would be to join a local gym, not just for fitness purposes, but also to immerse herself in the French culture and language. Her efforts certainly paid off, as she’s now fluent. At this point, she also invested in a Withings smart scale — a device that would play a pivotal role later on in her health journey. 

As Melissa’s passion for fitness grew, so did her aspirations. Casual runs with friends and rollerblading along the river Seine eventually became training sessions for half and full marathons. She soon found herself pushing her limits in pursuit of personal bests. In 2014, Melissa proudly crossed the finish line of her first half marathon, driven by a desire to improve and excel. The power of data tracking played a crucial role in her progress, enabling her to analyze and optimize her performance.

Melissa standing proudly at the finish line of a race.

An unexpected twist puts life on pause 

Life’s biggest changes often come unannounced, and for Melissa, her most dramatic, life-changing moment knocked her off her feet while running a marathon in 2015. With the finish line almost in sight, her heart sent out an alarm. Though she felt normal that day, a strange sensation swept over her, and her legs suddenly seemed to give out. The next memory she had was waking up amidst a crowd of concerned faces, learning that she had collapsed just shy of completing the race. 

When asked if she knew where she was, Melissa recalls answering “At the 19-kilometer mark!” — she knew she was close to beating the time she had set for herself and was laser-focused on achieving her goal. She was fully expecting to keep running and was shocked to hear she had been unresponsive to CPR for nearly two minutes.

Patience and perspective keep Melissa motivated 

Once admitted to the hospital, Melissa’s doctors discovered the cause of the event — a previously undetected congenital heart defect. Her left coronary artery had become entangled, obstructing blood flow to her heart during the marathon. While a childhood symptom of pain in her left arm may have hinted at the issue early on, unfortunately, the defect had remained unnoticed until this fateful moment. 

Despite the fact that the hospital staff was amazed Melissa did not have any permanent damage to her heart, and often referred to her as “a miracle case,” the month-long admittance with around-the-clock monitoring tested her resolve. Thankfully, her sister’s support and a successful corrective surgery lifted her spirits.

Melissa’s support network was key to her recovery.

Data-driven healing 

However, Melissa’s recovery was far from straightforward. A 5-month stay in cardiac rehab and a hiatus from her postdoc studies followed, but with every obstacle, Melissa’s determination shone brighter. When she was finally able to return home, she set out to regain her health by closely tracking her cardiac metrics with the help of her Withings smart scale, smartwatch, and blood pressure monitor. 

This deeper knowledge of what was going on inside her body gave her peace of mind as her life gradually returned to normal. Soon, she was well on her way to earning her Ph.D. and was able to integrate light physical activity, like walking outside, into her routine while continuously adjusting her habits to support her body’s changing needs and limitations.

Better health is a balancing act 

Melissa’s success highlights the power of maintaining balance. Amidst her health-focused pursuits, she acknowledges the importance of indulgent moments too. In particular, she enjoyed lots of ice cream during the Covid pandemic. But by keeping a close eye on her numbers, Melissa has gained a more holistic understanding of her well-being and emphasizes that this practice can be a valuable tool for anyone who wants to feel their best. 

Athletes in particular, she admits, do not always make the best patients and tend to push their limits. She has had to deal with various injuries over the years but has learned to adapt to what her body can handle, so physical activity can remain a consistent part of her life. 

Melissa enjoying time in the water.

Looking back and moving forward

Today, Melissa maintains an active lifestyle and a 24 lb weight loss. She told us she hopes her story will resonate with anyone who worries they won’t emerge stronger after facing adversity. She continues to find new ways to exercise, including learning to surf the waves of California, and she also finds swimming to be a great way to work on her recovery. Melissa stands as a testament to the fact that the journey to better health — every challenge and victory included — is a journey worth taking.

Many thanks to Melissa for sharing her health journey. If you have an inspiring story to tell, reach out to us: