You gotta have heart…

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Hidden among the stories this week about the baseball playoffs, college and pro football and start of the hockey season, was a note about the PGA allowing a golfer to use a cart in a qualifying tournament later this month. While columns are written about the ravages of sprains and strains, Erik Compton’s triumphs in pro golf are special. He has heart. Actually he’s on his third, after recently undergoing his second heart transplant.

At age 9, Mr. Compton developed cardiomyopathy, a condition where the heart muscle loses its ability to contract and pump blood adequately to the body. After receiving a heart transplant at age 13, he rose to the top ranks of junior golf, played in college and graduated to the Canadian and Hooters tours, where we won numerous tournaments. But transplanted hearts don’t have a lifetime warrantee and only last 10-15 years. Compton’s heart wore out and he was unable to do daily activities, let alone compete at his sport. Fortunately, heart number 3 became available and the PGA Q school beckons..

Recovering from major surgery takes significant amounts of mental and physical strength and dedication. It’s harder when the body is also filled with anti-rejection drugs and heart medications that limit the ability of the body to work out. So it was good news that the PGA agreed to the use of a cart. Mr. Compton can swing a club but he hadn’t recovered enough to walk the miles required of a round of golf. His goal is to be able to have the endurance to be indistinguishable from his fellow golfers, except for the scar on his chest. (As a side note, he can thank Casey Martin, the present University of Oregon golf coach, who fought to use a cart because of a blood circulation problem in his leg that didn’t allow him to walk without the risk of fracture and potential leg amputation.)

Rejection is the big deal when it comes to organ transplantation. Even if there is a good tissue match, the body still perceives the transplanted organ as a foreign object to be attacked, no different than a bacteria or virus infection. Medication is used to suppress the body’s immune system so that the normal defense systems don’t attack the organ transplant. The medications need to be fine tuned to balance rejection risk against decreasing immunity levels to allow infections to occur. But these same drugs decrease the ability of the body to build muscle; not the best situation for an athlete trying to get ready for competition.

A transplanted heart poses special challenges for an athlete. The heart needs to be able to pump enough blood to meet the oxygen needs of exercising muscle. But some of the medications used to control blood pressure and heart rate and rhythm decrease that ability. Beta blockers prevent the heart from speeding up as a reaction to exercise needs by blocking adrenalin receptors in the heart. This blockade makes training harder and demands more patience to start to see results. Interestingly, the adrenalin blocking has a positive action for a golfer since it will decrease the shakes and nerves associated with the pressure of the game. It is a banned substance but Mr. Compton has been granted a waiver.

Athletes aspire to greatness in competition. Dedication to goals, regardless of obstacle, allows them to inspire us to greatness within ourselves, if we have the heart. It seems Erik Compton has plenty for all of us to share.

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