THE BLOG
12/12/2013 02:12 pm ET Updated Feb 11, 2014

I Was 17: An Athlete's Story of Being Diagnosed With Heart Disease

I was 17. It was the summer of 1999, before my senior year in high school, and life was good. My friends and I were about to be kings of the school, in our heads of course, and nothing would stop this summer from being the best ever. Dave Matthews Band concerts at the "Meadows" in Hartford were the highlight of the break. Between the girls, the beer, and the music, it was a play land for us. The fun started early as we tailgated at the Jai Lai parking lot. We tossed the Frisbee, hollered at the pretty girls, and broke each other's balls all day. I had a few drinks at this point, the sun was hot, and I was smoking pot with a friend. We came out of the woods from a bathroom break and a couple friends were tossing the football. That was the last thing I remember. Not sure how much time I lost, but I'm sure it wasn't very long on a clock, or else I wouldn't be writing this. The next thing I remember is people hovering over me asking "are you all right?" I had no idea why I was on the black pavement and turned the day's smiles into looks of concern. Someone helped me up and there happened to be a nurse there who made her way over. The quick diagnosis: dehydration. I had fallen forward straight on my face and got some pretty good cuts from the whole ordeal. I was thinking about how I had to take my senior pictures the next day and not really much about what could have just happened. So I drank some water and before you know it we were on our way to the concert for a great night.

A few weeks passed, and it was nearing the school year when pre-season hockey started. This was going to be my year. I don't remember whether it was the first time on the ice or later in a game but when I got off from a shift I got tunnel vision while catching my breath. I felt completely dizzy as if I just stood up way too fast, multiplied by a thousand. My coach came over and in between calling for a shift change, leaned forward from the back bench to ask if I was OK. By that time, the dizziness had passed and I took a sip from the water bottle, ready for the next shot on the ice. Did I develop some sort of asthma? I don't remember the exact timeline, but shortly after that night, the seniors had a meeting with the high school coach. He named one of my best friends and me captains. When I was a young boy, hockey was life. But when I got to high school, it kind of took a back seat to girls, socializing, and where the next party was. But at the time of the meeting, I was ready to be a leader. Whatever it was, I wanted to put my effort back into this sport because it might be the last year we play competitively. Captain's practice began. These are usually pre-season workouts and some ice time. No coaches, our chance to initiate the freshman and start to build a relationship with the team. I went through weightlifting just fine, even took everyone over to the football field where we ran the stairs as my friend and I yelled encouragement to our team. After the hard work was done, we decided to play Ultimate Frisbee. Sort of like football with a disc. After the game and running around, I had my worst dizzy spell. I was by my car with just a friend of mine when I collapsed on the hood of my '87 Legend. I never lost consciousness, but this was serious and seemed to last for a long time. When I got home, I told my mother. "Okay, let's make some doctor's appointments," she said. Friends and family all had an opinion and "sports asthma" seemed to keep coming up as my unofficial diagnosis. I had appointments with a neurologist, GP, and cardiologist. I missed the neurology appointment for some reason but made it to the cardiologist.

We made our way into the office and waited for our turn. After describing my symptoms, they decided to do an EKG and an echo-cardiogram. I remember that room. The room where my whole life changed. Remember, I was still 17, so I was being seen by the pediatric cardiologist. There were kids rolling around on the floor playing with all the usual toys you found in a doctors office in the '90s, from the rainbow-colored xylophone to the bead and roller coaster wire toy. My mother and I went in the room to talk to the doctor about the results. Never in a million years did I think that he was going to tell me something was wrong. I thought we were just checking things off the list until we found out I had something simple and curable with an inhaler or something. I was invincible. I was accustomed to every pediatric check-up before where I left thinking I was the healthiest kid around. I was an athlete, and a pretty good one at that. But it didn't end with a slap on the knee and a "see you before the next season." It was serious. I had dilated cardiomyopathy (It wouldn't be until later that I was diagnosed with ARVD/C). Huh? Your left ventricle is significantly enlarged, your ejection fraction is one-third a normal person, and those dizzy spells were episodes of ventricular tachycardia, a potentially fatal type of arrhythmia. "You are lucky to be alive." I think I tuned it out because none of it could be true. I started thinking about the plans I had that night to get together with friends. "We need to admit you right away to the hospital for tests." What time will I be out, is all I thought, would it be in time to meet up with my friends? "You won't be going home tonight, and we have to arrange for your immediate transport." I'm sure there were a million questions from my mom, shock, incredulity, denial, I don't really recall. I was on my way to the hospital. More tests, new clothes, grippy socks, lots of sticky tabs all over my body with wires everywhere, X-rays, blood work, and ET-like red fingers. I looked in the mirror and saw all the wires and looked like Drago in Rocky IV running on the treadmill. That run on the treadmill came as well, in a stress test. "Your endurance is above average for your age." No shit, I'm a fucking hockey player. Days passed and it was time to become bionic. You're gonna what? Put leads into my heart, implant a metal box that monitors my heart rhythm and shocks me like what those paddles do on the show ER after yelling "CLEAR."

My whole family was there. Everyone. They were as shocked as us -- there had been no family history. Then someone asked if they should be screened for the disease. Could someone else have this? EKGs and echocardiograms for parents, cousins, aunts, uncles, and my brother would follow. I ripped everything off me and ran out of the hospital room to the elevator. I went right out the front door and sat on the curb, feeling completely confused, alone, and ready to wake up. My dad and brother found me. I don't remember them being mad that I left the hospital and made everyone worried sick. I feel like they understood it, they expected it from me. But it was time to go back upstairs.

I had my surgery. They put a metal box in my chest the size of a deck of cards. I was lying in the recovery room, numb. Not upset, not anxious, not thinking about what I was doing that weekend. I was just numb and alone. Even with my whole family waiting outside for me with some friends and a million phone calls coming to my room. My mom and brother came in as I laid there. "How are you feeling?" They looked scared, they looked confused. Then my brother told me "I have it too." I don't remember my reaction -- the harder I think about what was in the my head at that moment, the farther the feelings seem to escape my memory. I don't remember if I was sad, if I was angry, if I was in denial. I don't remember how I reacted. But still to this day, I wake up in tears with overwhelming guilt. I wake up thinking that I was relieved. I wake up thinking I was happy when he told me that. I wake up thinking how selfish I was to think of myself less alone in this disease. I only hope that my reaction was different. This was just the beginning, the inception of Dave 2.0.