Sub-surface medical issues: We need to be more cautious with our athletes

Mark Williams, Editor-in-Chief

On March 15, 2020, I had a cardiac ablation — a type of heart surgery where doctors work to destroy or disable a dysfunctional part of the heart. I was being treated for a condition known as Supraventricular Tachycardia (SVT) which, as it was explained to me, involved a “double” nerve that could trigger a heart arrhythmia. This arrhythmia, usually triggered by athletic activity, sent my heart rate as high as 290 beats per minute. For reference, my resting heart rate at the time was 54 beats per minute.

On Jan. 1, 2023, NFL player Damar Hamlin suffered a sudden cardiac arrest after what is described as a blow to the chest. Hamlin’s heart stopped for several minutes before he was resuscitated. His cardiac arrest was caused by a sudden heart arrhythmia not entirely dissimilar to what I experienced. Doctors have yet to determine if Hamlin has any particular heart condition and some have theorized that the blow to his chest happened at the precise moment that could possibly trigger the arrhythmia. Without knowing the full cause and medical diagnosis of Hamlin, it’s impossible to know exactly what (if any) heart conditions made Hamlin vulnerable. It also is not like the NFL has the best medical history. Regardless, the fact that we both had heart arrhythmia remains true. While the medical similarities may stop there, heart issues in sports are often ignored or misunderstood.

I was first struck by SVT the week before a competition in late 2019, practicing at the Rose center to simulate a competition environment. I performed horribly, taking an early fall and I remember feeling as if I was hardly able to move. Coaches chalked the incident up to nervousness. I was competing in about a week, and it was possible I had experienced an anxiety attack. Six months later the same feelings began to strike again, and it was recommended to me that I get screened for anxiety. The issue became persistent, and it was not until January 2021 that a doctor suggested sending me to OHSU to get screened for SVT. I was still cleared to train and compete with the heart issues and an OHSU heart monitor recorded my heart rate approaching 290 beats per minute causing me at times to nearly pass out.

Sports are naturally strenuous and athletes need better medical monitoring to catch potential problems earlier. Common medical checks should be performed before entry to sports and coaches should send athletes to doctors earlier before simply asking them to push through. I, like many athletes, had medical conditions shrugged off instead of seeking early medical care. Obviously, pain and exhaustion are a natural part of any sport but making an effort to understand discomforts before they become major issues is critical to athletes such as NFL player Damar Hamlin. Athletic culture can often encourage people to “tough it out,” and it is critical that we properly evaluate injuries as well as underlying medical conditions before they can’t be shocked back to life.