By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS

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Paige Garnica recently finished her freshman year of college in New York City. It’s an experience the California teen never thought she’d have.

She grew up with three aneurysms, including a giant one in her left coronary artery — the consequence of Kawasaki disease, a diagnosis she got at 18 months old.

Although the condition was caught relatively quickly, the damage to her heart had already been done.

“We went from thinking she had the flu to being told she had heart damage,” said Paige’s mom, Jennifer. “It was terrifying.”

Kawasaki disease is the leading cause of acquired heart disease among children in the United States. It is named after Tomisaku Kawasaki, a Japanese pediatrician who identified it 1967.

The disease can affect any racial or ethnic group, but is higher in Japan, and is more common among children of Asian descent in the United States. It almost always affects children, usually under the age of 5, and boys develop the illness more often than girls.

Doctors aren’t sure what causes Kawasaki disease, but it is thought to be viral or triggered by another infectious cause. When diagnosed and treated quickly, the disease is less likely to affect the heart.

Paige, who grew up in Redondo Beach, took blood thinners, had regular blood tests and frequent checkups with a cardiologist to monitor the giant aneurysm.

Just before her junior year in high school, Paige started to feel more tired than usual. She was short of breath, and occasionally felt chest pains and nauseated. Her long-time pediatric cardiologist had retired, and consultations with her new doctor failed to reveal any clues.

The symptoms were also taking a big toll on her day-to-day activities. Paige found herself altering her routes to school, taking shortcuts and avoiding hills to conserve energy.

“I’d come home and be so tired, I’d just collapse on my bed,” she said. “I had accepted that I was just going to sort of have this half-alive life.”

Midway through her junior year, a CT scan of her heart showed there was some narrowing in her arteries, but Paige passed other tests so additional procedures were postponed until the summer.

In July 2014, Paige’s medical team discovered two major blockages during a catheterization procedure and ordered an emergency double bypass surgery two days later.

“I was as frightened as I was relieved,” Paige said. “It was an extremely scary scenario, but on the other hand, it short of felt like I was finally going to be saved.”

Because the surgery rerouted around the blockages and the remaining giant aneurysm from Kawasaki disease, Paige would no longer need the blood thinners she’d required most of her life.

It also helped her consider, for the first time, the possibility of going away to college.

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“It was my dream to live in New York City and I don’t think my parents would have let me do that with the aneurysm,” said Paige, now 18.

She’s studying business at Pace University and feels fortunate to be alive. “As cheesy as it sounds, I really do try to take advantage of every day.”

Photos courtesy of Paige Garnica