Life shifts can happen at any time. The key is to have a plan of attack no matter what the challenge.
May 8, 2015 Arielle has a routine primary care appointment to get a referral for the podiatrist. During the routine evaluation, the primary care provider (PCP) begins to think that Arielle is exhibiting signs of Marfan Syndrome. Marfan syndrome is what caused Isaiah Austin, the Baylor basketball star, to withdraw from the NBA draft in 2014. The PCP requests some tests: x-rays for spinal deformity, genetics referral, and an EKG to check for the cardiac component of Marfan Syndrome. The appointment ends and life goes on.
Shortly after Arielle’s EKG, I receive a call from the Pediatric department to set up an appointment with the pediatric cardiologist. I am instantly concerned because I think of all the things going on in the next few weeks. Arielle is the TX-5A Region 1 Champ in both the Long and Triple jump and is heading to Austin for the first time ever to compete in the State track meet. She has goals and plans for her future in athletics at the college level. Coaches are jockeying for position to get her attention in both volleyball and track. I didn’t want her plans for athletics to be derailed by Marfan like Isaiah’s. I set the appointment and decided to wait to tell Arielle later so that she wouldn’t worry.
Arielle’s track season takes off like a shot. She goes to state and takes 2nd place in the Triple Jump. She is invited to compete in the Great Southwest Outdoor Track & Field Meet in June. She qualifies to go to the USATF World Youth Trials in Chicago for a chance to compete for Team USA in the IAAF World Youth Championships. She is oblivious to the fact that she has a cardiac appointment in a month.
The appointment weighs on me heavily, however. What if she has the cardiac component of Marfan Syndrome? With that diagnosis her entire sports career is over. It’s high risk for sudden death that makes her untouchable by any D-1 school athletic program. No track, no volleyball, no nothing. How do you tell your child that she can no longer compete collegiately as she had planned? It is sheer agony.
Every time I get up the nerve to tell Arielle about this cardiology appointment some other great event happens. Right after she qualifies for the youth trials in track, she receives an email saying that she made the high performance volleyball team for the region. It is quite an honor to make this team. She’s excited and I am deflated because now is still not a good time to tell her.
While preparing for the Border championships for summer track, Arielle is notified that she is El Paso Female Track athlete of the year! It’s another reason to be excited and STILL not a good time to tell her about the cardiology appointment.
Finally, I tell Arielle about her cardiologist appointment once we return from World Youth Trials on July 2, 2015. The appointment with the cardiologist is July 9, 2015. She instantly asks if something is wrong with her heart. I say no, that they just want to be sure. Being ever the optimist, I even scheduled her school sports physical for the same day. I was so sure the cardiologist wasn’t going to find anything and she would be cleared on her physical to start volleyball practices.
That was my plan. The universe, however, was not cooperating.
July 9, 2015. Appointment Day we go to Arielle’s appointment and the first thing they do is take another EKG for Dr. Black, the cardiologist. And we wait…and silently pray…and awkwardly try to act like everything is fine. Dr. Black comes in and tells us that Arielle does not have Marfan’s. Whew! Then comes the but…but she does have Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome (WPW). What in the world is that? He immediately calls us to a place of calm and begins to explain what WPW is and what it entails.
WPW is a syndrome where an alternate pathway develops in the heart in utero. Normally, the electricity goes through one designated pathway and is slowed down prior to entering the different chambers of the heart, so that the heart pumps properly. This alternate pathway allows the electricity to pass through the heart without being slowed down at all. This unchecked electricity can cause irregular heartbeat, atrial fibrillation, and sudden death with high intensity cardiac events…like sports!
WHAT?!? Arielle and I both begin to pepper Dr. Black with information and questions. She has USATF Junior Olympic Nationals coming up, what does WPW mean for that? Volleyball season is coming up, how long will she be out of commission. What about this, how does that play out with that? I am feeling frantic and so is Arielle.
Dr. Black immediately reassures us that WPW is totally fixable and that she should be able to continue with her sports career once it is fixed. But…
But?!? Another but. But what? I did not realize that I was holding my breath until I started feeling light-headed. This was a lot to take and we had plans and finances tied up in Arielle going to Jacksonville to compete in the Junior Olympic Nationals. This was her year of redemption etc. However, Arielle’s health was most important. We both knew that and wanted to convey that to Dr. Black.
Dr. Black listened patiently to our concerns and told us that Arielle was not allowed to do any competitive athletics until her heart diagnostics were confirmed. There was a possibility that with high intensity work-outs that the alternate pathway could possibly automatically shut itself down once the heart rate was raised to 150+ beats per minute. But in order to determine that Arielle needed to get a Holter monitor and do a stress test to get the diagnostics.
A plan is then mapped out a plan to get things moving as quickly as possible in light of our plans for Jacksonville. He needed Arielle to wear a Holter monitor to track her heartbeat for 24 hours. Once the diagnostics were received he would know how to proceed. If the alternate pathway shut itself down during high intensity workouts, then she is out of the woods and can continue as normal. That was definitely my hope because I really want her to be OK and to not have her season derailed.
No such luck. Arielle wore the monitor during two track practices, played Just Dance on X-Box, and went roller skating. The results showed that her heart rate during exertion got up to 170+ beats per minute and the pathway did not shut itself down. So we had to prepare for the next procedure which was an electro-physiology study and cardiac ablation. It is not open heart surgery but anything dealing with the heart is always of major concern.
Arielle and I had a talk in light of this new development and decided that she would compete in Junior Olympic Nationals in spite of the diagnosis. The thought process was that she had competed this long with WPW not knowing that she had it and this was her last track event of the season. We would finish the season and then deal with the WPW.
This response was made not from a place of panic but it was calmly discussed and all of the possibilities analyzed. From an early age in sports, we have always taught Arielle to know what her priorities are before entering into any venture. This makes the decision making process more streamlined and easy to navigate. If you don’t know the priority, then any challenge can likely throw you off course. We know that “track is life” and we were going to see this great season through to the end.
While at the Junior Olympic Nationals, it was very scary for me to sit and watch her compete. I generally enjoy watching Arielle get all intense with the competition. I generally encourage her to push herself to her very limits. This time, though, it was a little different. Although I wanted her to make All-American and do really well, I had this growing apprehension of “What if…?” I watched her compete and put on a brave face, but it was one of the hardest things for me to ever do so far. When she finished both her events as an All-American, in spite of the WPW diagnosis, I could not have been prouder.
All-American at Junior Olympic Nationals were the final feathers in a great season’s cap. Arielle finished the 2015 track season as:
- EPISD District Record Holder (Varsity) in Triple Jump (38’11.5”)
- 5-A Region 1 Champion in Long Jump (18’7”) PR
- 5-A Region 1 Champion Triple Jump (40’ 6”) PR and Burges High School record
- TX State Silver Medalist in Triple Jump (40’ 3.75”)
- Great Southwest Outdoor Triple-Jump 6th place finisher 2015
- El Paso Times Female Track Athlete of the Year 2015
- USATF World Youth Trials Competitor 2015
- USATF Border Champion in Long Jump 2015 (5.57) Border Record for 15-16
- USATF Border Champion in Triple Jump 2015 (11.93)Border Record for 15-16
- USATF Junior Olympic Nationals All-American Long Jump 2015
- USATF Junior Olympic Nationals All-American Triple Jump. 2015
- Milesplit TX Female Track Athlete of the Year Nominee 2015
Now on to deal with this WPW.