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Audrey Colflesh shows part of her scar from her open heart surgery. (Image courtesy of Audrey Colflesh)

On Nov. 17, 2008, I lay on an operating table undergoing open heart surgery at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. Four years later on Nov. 18, I will be running the Philadelphia Half Marathon for the second year in a row to celebrate four wonderful years with a healthy heart.

I thought I just had the flu that November in 2008. After hanging around home for a week with a fever, I finally called a cab to take me to the emergency room at the hospital where I was a nurse. Within a day I was transferred to the ICU, and before two days had ended, I wasn't able to breathe on my own. I don't remember what happened after that.

A powerful staph infection had spread through my blood, lungs and heart. I was placed in a medically induced coma for 10 days while doctors and nurses repaired my heart and lungs. I woke up five days after heart surgery and subsequent lung surgery to find my family, friends and a table full of get-well cards.

Not realizing how much time had passed in my absence, I immediately asked for my cell phone, so I could check to see if the handsome architect who I had gone on only a few dates with (but had already fallen for) had called to see how I was doing. After discovering no new messages or missed calls, I assumed he had moved on.

At 5:30 that afternoon, he walked into my hospital room, just as he had every single day since my admission.

I was in the hospital for almost a month. In that time, I lost 20 pounds, experienced what it was like to have tubes in my chest, wires to my heart, and staples in my sternum. I relearned how to hold my balance and to walk. Over time I started to rebuild the muscles that had atrophied while I was asleep. I was back to work by the end of January as a nurse for the hospital that rescued me.

Two years later, that sweet architect, Michael, and I moved to Philadelphia so I could attend graduate school at Penn. Though not terribly athletic, Mike and I signed up for the 2011 Broad Street Run because (obviously) it's the cool thing to do here.

We reluctantly began to train, and after a few grueling and somewhat miserable runs in an out-of-shape body, I started to change. I discovered how much I love to run. I ran and ran and ran, and every time I went for a distance run, all I could think about was how lucky I was to have a healthy heart.

My body got stronger, and I started to feel better than I can remember feeling even before my surgery. My self-esteem rocketed, and I believed in myself in ways I didn't know were possible. Mike and I rocked the Broad Street and I immediately started to search for my next big race.

I can only assume it is because I am extraordinarily lucky that the Philadelphia Marathon happens to fall on the anniversary of the heart surgery that saved my life. Six months (and many miles) later, I ran my first half-marathon on the three-year anniversary of my surgery and embarrassingly held back tears of joy through every mile marker.

This year, after graduating from Penn, and with Michael now my fiancé, I have the wonderful opportunity to run the Philadelphia Half Marathon almost four years to the day after my open heart surgery. Because running has changed my life in so many ways, I am sharing the gift of running this year by raising money for Girls on the Run.

GOTR is an organization that encourages girls to discover the joy of running to increase their self esteem and create healthy and active lives that they can maintain into adulthood. Running has made such a difference in my life over the past two years physically, mentally and spiritually, and I am thrilled at the prospect of helping this organization pass that on.

Running this race last year and training for it this year has helped me come to terms with my prognosis as a permanent cardiac patient. When I started to run two years ago I realized that my future health depended on the strength I gave my heart. Now, I know this inside, but I run just for the running. Everyone ought to know what that feels like.