The second you commit to the college of your dreams, you are flooded with thoughts of what will be: constantly imagining the friendships you will form, the experiences you will have, envisioning the success you hope to find in your sport. I was no different. I came into my freshman year in the best shape of my life, full of hope and ambition.
Five days after arriving on campus, I was summoned to do a full physical screening, as all freshmen are. I went through the typical tests: height, weight, eyesight, blood pressure, and so on. Next, a trainer took my pulse. I found it odd because she was looking at me all funny and kept asking me to relax. She asked me if I had eaten that morning. I informed her I had a huge dining hall breakfast right before reporting to the physical, and I was feeling fine. She gave me a concerned look and sent me off to get my EKG.
Next thing I knew, I was hooked up to an EKG, and that’s where things took a turn. After performing the EKG, the physician gave me the same concerned look that I had seen moments before. Assuring me that everything was fine, he suddenly left the room. When he came back, he told me to go down the hall and to speak to the head doctor. As I walked down the hall, I saw all of my classmates waiting in the lobby. I gave them a confused shrug, said I would be quick, and apologized for making them have to wait.
I walked into that doctor’s office and what was said to me there changed my life.
The doctor informed me that my EKG was irregular and concerning. He informed me that it looked to be a serious heart condition and that I would have to go see a specialist for my next steps. I didn’t ask any questions. I simply thanked him, took the paperwork he gave me, and walked out of his office. I was scared and distraught. I was still unsure of what this meant, but it felt like my world had flipped upside down. I then had to face my classmates who were joking around asking why it took so long for me to get through the physical. I told them that I had no idea what just happened and that was the truth. I walked back in a daze, called my mom, and broke down in the stairwell of my dorm.
After a full week of meeting with the best cardiac specialists in Boston and going through what seemed like a million tests and exams, my full prognosis was shared with me.
I had something called Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome: a very rare heart condition that I was born with completely by chance. There was no way for anyone to anticipate that I could have had this, and I was extremely lucky that they caught it when they did.
I was also informed that the area that would need surgery to correct was directly next to my AV node. This made any kind of surgical correction incredibly risky because if my AV node was damaged in any way, they would have to abandon the plan to ablate and would need to immediately implant a pacemaker. This would have been a much more invasive procedure. Not only would I wake up to realize there was a foreign object regulating my heart rate, but a pacemaker would also render me unable to continue my dream of being a D1 lacrosse player.
This is how my first week of college went.
A team of cardiologists performed multiple tests on me to gauge how my heart would handle high levels of physical activity. Since I was able to pass those tests, the doctors decided that I was okay to play, as long as my heart rate was tracked throughout workouts. The consensus was that it was best for me to compete under supervision, rather than attempt the risky surgery. The goal was to get me through four years of college lacrosse and then reassess. This was all well and good until I collapsed during a winter run test a month before our season. When that happened, there was no debating that I needed surgery right away.
The day of that run test was the scariest day of my life. The last thing I remember was the second lap of our mile. My heart was leaping out of my chest and I felt it all go. I truly felt as though once I went down, I would never get back up. After that thought, I completely blacked out. In my unconscious state, I apparently finished the run test. Something in me understood that I couldn’t play unless I passed, and because of that I pushed myself almost past the point of no return. All because I wanted to play a sport.
Looking back, I can remember times where I had randomly passed out walking with friends, taking a test, or running a warmup lap in practice. I chose not to disclose these instances to my doctors out of fear that they would keep me from playing. The decision to withhold this information to those who were trying to help me led to my traumatic experience during that mile. Had I been honest with myself and with my doctors, I would have never dropped down on that track.
As athletes, we build a love for our sport that is hard to comprehend. We love the people we become on the field, court, ice, pool, track, etc. All the hours and years we put into our sport, for most of us since childhood, only strengthens that bond and that passion. This passion and love for playing was what kept me from helping myself and preventing my own collapse.
Heart conditions in athletes are incredibly rare. You may not have one, you may not know someone directly that has one, but they exist. I lived for 20 years without knowing that I had a serious heart condition. I got lucky because I played a collegiate sport, and the medical staff for our team performed detailed examinations, which led to my diagnosis. I was lucky.
There are approximately 75 deaths per year in both male and female athletes between the ages of 13 and 25 and most sudden deaths occur during or immediately after exercise. The sad reality is that COVID-19 has only increased these numbers. Tragedies like these could be avoided by simply acknowledging and speaking on the rarity, yet severity, of heart conditions. As most of these athletes are not aware of their conditions, a small yet powerful act would be making it a priority to encourage athletes, both young and old, to get their hearts checked on a consistent basis.
In sports, we are told to push through and never give up no matter what. It is hard for me, with what I have experienced, to completely agree with that. Heart conditions in athletes, while not very common, happen, and they should be talked about more often.
I hope sharing my story can help someone struggling with a heart condition. Even though it may not seem like it at the time, life is so much more important than playing a sport. I not only had to undergo two heart ablations, with the significant risk of both of them turning into career-ending and life-altering procedures, but I had to take the time to heal from the traumatic experience I went through. It took me about three years to be able to openly talk about what I overcame and come to terms with it. I still carry the experience with me on and off the field.
Against the odds, today I am blessed and lucky to be able to still play the sport that I love. Had it not worked out, I would be sitting here, writing this with a pacemaker, having never played collegiate lacrosse. As hard as that would have been, I would have eventually been okay with it. I have come to realize that as long as you prioritize your health, you can be okay, and while not always easy, you can find your way.
Your sport is not the sole definition of who you are, and it does not determine your worth. That being said, if it’s something that you love to do and something that drives you, go for it and give it all you got. Just remember to listen to and unapologetically advocate for your body. At the end of the day, it is you and your well-being that has to come first.