St. George Council member back on the job after surviving heart scare in Japan and rumors at home

Dannielle Larkin was diagnosed with a genetic electrical issue called ventricular fibrillation.

(Dannielle Larkin) The start of the Ibigawa half marathon in Ibigawa, Japan, Sunday, Nov. 12, 2023. Larkin, a St. George City councilwoman, suffered a ventricular fibrillation while participating in the race at Ibigawa, a sister city of St. George.

St. George • After enduring a major health scare in Japan earlier this month, weathering a wave of rumors and undergoing successful surgery a little more than a week ago, St. George Council member Dannielle Larkin is back on the job and thankful to be alive.

Larkin traveled to Japan several weeks ago to visit Ibigawa, a small agriculture town located in the scenic far western Gifu Prefecture and St. George’s sister city since 1988. She was there as Mayor Michele Randall’s representative.

After attending and speaking at a number of events as a member of the St. George delegation over the course of the visit, Larkin and her husband, Darrin — both fitness buffs — decided to run the Igibawa half-marathon on Nov. 12, which draws about 7,000 entrants each year.

They were about two miles into the race when Dannielle suddenly collapsed.

She said Darrin and other runners in the crowded field caught her before she hit the ground. Fortuitously, a doctor and two nurses running nearby rushed to her aid and began treating her until help arrived.

(Dannielle Larkin) From left, Dannielle Larkin, Tatsuya Isokawa and Darrin Larkin at the Ibigawa half marathon in Ibigawa, Japan, Sunday, Nov. 12, 2023. Dannielle Larkin, a St. George City councilwoman, suffered a ventricular fibrillation while participating in the race at Ibigawa, a sister city of St. George.

Larkin has no memory of collapsing. Her earliest recollection after the incident is waking up in the cardiac unit in a hospital in the city of Ogaki. The physician who treated her at the scene was there to greet her. Despite Darrin’s insistence that the doctor continue the race, she explained, the man insisted on riding with the couple to the hospital to ensure she would be OK.

“He missed the race because he spent basically an entire day assisting me and my husband because, as a physician, he believed that’s what he should do, " Larkin said. “That makes me very emotional because he sacrificed his entire day. He just wanted to stay and see me awake before he said, ‘OK, my duty here is done.’ "

The doctors’ prognosis after running some tests was encouraging.

“Your heart looks great,” Larkin remembers them saying. “You had an electrical issue. You need a defibrillator and you’ll be fine.

Larkin was diagnosed with a genetic electrical issue called ventricular fibrillation (V-fib), a potentially deadly malfunction of the lower chamber of the heart. Essentially, this form of arrhythmia causes the heart to spasm or twitch in an uncoordinated fashion rather than fully expanding and squeezing.

Larkin says the blood then does not pump to the rest of the body, which often causes a person to collapse and lose consciousness. Unless treated within minutes, V-fib can result in sudden cardiac death. It is different from a heart attack, which is often caused by blockages to the blood vessels supplying the heart with oxygen.

“If I was running on a trail by myself, I would have died,” Larkin said, “because your heart won’t stop spasming on its own. That’s why they have to use (defibrillators) which act like jumper cables to give the heart an electrical charge that stops it from spasming and restores it back to a normal rhythm.”

Upon learning what was wrong, the Larkins decided to return home and have the defibrillator surgery done at St. George Regional Hospital.

While her prognosis was good, she added, that didn’t stop some political opponents and their supporters back in Utah from spreading misinformation about her condition and trying to capitalize on her misfortune.

After all, the Nov. 21 election some have called the nastiest in St. George’s history was nine days away and Larkin was seeking a second term. Even before the couple arrived back in Utah, Larkin said, rumors and misinformation began circulating on social media. One was from Paula Smith, who was vying with Larkin and three other candidates for a council seat.

“A very vocal incumbent for St. George has big health issues that should be disclosed … But they don’t want to risk votes,” Smith posted on Facebook.

Another post from a critic stated Larkin had a heart attack, was slated to have open-heart surgery and was trying to hide her condition until after the Nov. 21 election. Larkin said some of these posts aired before doctors diagnosed the problem or she and Darrin had a chance to inform family members what had happened.

Moreover, Larkin said, she did not need open-heart surgery, her condition was treatable and she and her husband were not trying to hide anything. They did, however, have some expectation of medical privacy.

“I have been in St George for over 50 years,” Darrin Larkin said. “I have not seen this kind of mudslinging and deliberate misinformation until this campaign. I am disappointed in those few people that are responsible for it.”

Equally disheartening for Larkin is that none of her rivals or their supporters seemed interested in asking how she was doing or in expressing condolences or any kind of empathy. Others characterized Larkin’s trip as a junket done at taxpayer expense. Larkin said entry fees for the St. George Marathon, not taxpayer dollars, paid for her trip. Darrin paid his own way.

“They immediately started putting out misinformation for political gain, even before we were able to tell some of our family and even knew what had actually happened, and that was very hard on my family …,” she said.

The Larkins arrived home in St. George on Nov. 19, and Dannielle had surgery to install a defibrillator in her chest the following evening. On Tuesday, election day, she was discharged in time to celebrate her reelection to another four-year term on the council.

Today, Larkin says she feels great, has resumed exercising and has not had to take time off from her council chores. She credits the excellent medical care she received in Japan and St. George for her recovery. And Ibigawa now holds a special place in her heart.

“I feel like our sister city saved my life,” she said. “They had incredible medical care and such kind and genuine people. [Ibigawa] is a sister city to me in every way now,” she said. “I am so lucky, and I am super blessed.”