Baltimore artist Amy Sherald received national attention this week when she stood alongside Michelle Obama as the former first lady’s official portrait was unveiled.
The painting is bold and unconventional by first family standards—Obama sits, pensive, in a flowing dress with muted gray tones contained in her hair, skin and dress, offset by a sky-blue background.
The route Sherald took to that moment is perhaps even more unusual.
Sherald was 30 years old, finishing graduate school and training for a triathlon in 2004 when she decided to see a doctor. She had a recurring dream since childhood in which she ran a marathon and died, according to a 2016 Baltimore Magazine story, so she just wanted to ease her mind.
The medical staff found she had severely impaired heart function and an ejection fraction of just 18 percent.
“I would have been one of those athletes whose heart just stops and no one knows why,” Sherald told the magazine.
In 2012, Sherald underwent a heart transplant after collapsing at a pharmacy. Her heart was barely functioning at the time, pumping just 5 percent of available blood.
Read the full story about Sherald’s heart issues, recovery and emergence in the art world below: