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P.E. Teacher, 23, 'Felt Something Was Wrong' After First Marathon, Learns He Has Heart Disease a Week Later (Exclusive)

“I eat clean. I don't drink alcohol. I take care of my body. I was doing the right stuff,” says Thomas Pritchard, who was surprised to learn he had atrial fibrillation

<p>courtesy Thomas Pritchard</p> Thomas Pritchard

courtesy Thomas Pritchard

Thomas Pritchard

Thomas Pritchard felt like he was in his perfect health before being diagnosed with a life-changing health condition.

As a former athlete, the 23-year-old from Fort Myers, Fla., prioritized exercise and maintained a healthy diet over the years. When he started a new job as a physical education teacher, he decided to find a hobby to keep himself active.

“I started to fall in love with long distance running so I signed up for my first marathon with my sister on November 26, 2023,” he tells PEOPLE. But the exciting milestone in his fitness journey was about to turn into a health scare. “After completing the marathon, I felt something was wrong but I didn't necessarily freak out right away. I just ran 26 miles so I figured I wasn't supposed to feel that good.”

Despite initially brushing it off, Pritchard says the feeling ultimately returned a week later.

“I woke up and my heart rate was beating extremely fast and I knew at that moment something was wrong. It felt like a flutter, something wasn’t right,” he explains. “So I went to urgent care and they put an EKG on my chest and they said, ‘You have to go to the emergency room right away. You have atrial fibrillation.’”

<p>courtesy Thomas Pritchard</p> Thomas Pritchard

courtesy Thomas Pritchard

Thomas Pritchard

Related: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Speaks About His Atrial Fibrillation Diagnosis, Importance of Getting Your Heart Checked

Atrial fibrillation, or AFib, is a quivering or irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia) that can lead to blood clots, stroke, heart failure and other heart-related complications, according to the American Heart Association. Symptoms include heart racing, chest pain, shortness of breath, light-headedness and fatigue.

While hospitalized, Pritchard underwent an ablation, a surgical procedure to create scar tissue inside the heart to help maintain a normal heart rhythm. However, he had a longer stay in the ER due to complications with his vision. He also learned after screening that he had “a hole in my heart.”

“I was diagnosed with heart disease and had to have my heart procedure. I lived in fear the next month and a half to two months. I had so much fear, like, oh my goodness, I'm so young,” he recalls.

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<p>courtesy Thomas Pritchard</p> Thomas Pritchard

courtesy Thomas Pritchard

Thomas Pritchard

Pritchard met with numerous doctors, including cardiologists and neurologists, who told him that unfortunately, his healthy lifestyle couldn’t have prevented his diagnosis.

“My cardiologist said, ‘Listen, there's nothing you can do. If it starts to go out of rhythm, then you'll come back in and we will fix it and we will take care of it.’ I remember sitting in the hospital and thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, I've eaten clean. I don't drink alcohol. I take care of my body. I'm in pretty good physical shape.’ I was doing the right stuff, that's the crazy part. So clearly this was always supposed to happen,” he says.

Pritchard admits that understanding that aspect has been “the beauty about the diagnosis” and helped him accept it moving forward.

“There was some peace when I found out there's nothing I can do. I really believe it's one of the greatest news I've ever gotten. It forces me to live in the present. It forces me to live without fear.”

Related: Tamra Judge Says She's 'Confident' Eddie Judge's Sixth Heart Surgery 'Did the Trick'

<p>courtesy Thomas Pritchard</p> Thomas Pritchard

courtesy Thomas Pritchard

Thomas Pritchard

Since his diagnosis, Pritchard has worked with his cardiologist to return to fitness and even has hopes of becoming a strength and conditioning coach.

Last month, Pritchard was able to run another race, doing so alongside his students for his school’s annual on-campus marathon, which was sponsored by The Heights Foundation and American Heart Association. He now runs to raise awareness for those living with heart conditions like AFib.

“I realized I could raise a good amount of money for these foundations. And then I realized it was about the awareness part,” he tells PEOPLE. “Everyone can see, oh that's the young P.E. teacher running with heart disease. It was such a special event and I was so grateful to be a part of that.”

Pritchard adds that the health scare, and learning how to manage his active lifestyle with AFib, has “changed my life.”

“It's given me this knowledge and I've just been eager to learn and looking up on social media how to get better at running with heart disease. So it has given me so much perspective,” he says. “Ultimately,  this thing has been a blessing.”

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Read the original article on People.