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October 23rd, 2014

From Heart Surgery to the Volleyball Court — in Eight Days

By In the Loop

Volleyball players on court at net

On Friday, Oct. 10, Tess Thomas found herself on familiar ground: the volleyball court. It's a place the Gardiner (Montana) High School senior has logged a lot of hours. But in late September, it was a place she tells the Billings Gazette she thought she might never be again. Tess was diagnosed with Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, a "fairly rare" condition that (according to mayoclinic.org) affects about four of every 100,000 people. Those with the syndrome have an extra electrical pathway between the upper and lower chambers of the heart, which causes a rapid heartbeat.

The first sign there was a problem came during a semifinal volleyball match, Tess tells the newspaper. "My heart was racing, my chest was feeling heavy, and I got light-headed," she says. The "episodes" continued during practice and the school day. "It became more intense," she says. And more consistent. That's when her mother, Wendy, scheduled an appointment with a doctor in Bozeman. After an EKG, Tess was "shocked" to receive the diagnosis. For many people, Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome is harmless. But for others, it can lead to fainting spells, a rapid heartbeat, and even sudden death. Because symptoms are often brought on by exercise, Tess tells the newspaper, "I didn't know if I would play again." 

Tess and her family decided to seek treatment — a noninvasive surgical procedure called ablation — as quickly as possible. Doctors in Billings and Denver said they could operate in mid-November. When Wendy Thomas called Mayo Clinic, she was asked, "When can you get here?" Her answer: "Soon." Mother and daughter "drove straight through from Gardiner to Rochester, about 18 hours." Tess had surgery on Oct. 2 and was home just two days later. And less than a week later, she was back at the net for her team.

Though she joked to the newspaper reporter that she was hoping the surgery would "help me jump higher," Tess says she was grateful just to be back on the court. Her team, including coach Carmen Harbach, was grateful for her return, too, and not just because she's the most "aggressive setter" for the team. "A situation like that, it gets you thinking about the big picture," Harbach tells the newspaper. "You learn that volleyball is just a game. I think it's brought our team closer together. It makes everybody appreciate each other more."

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Tags: Patient Stories, Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome

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