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March 8th, 2016

‘Live Life Like a 3-1 Count’ — Near Miss Changes Perspective for Sport Enthusiast

By In the Loop

Chris Willaert learned that he had bicuspid aortic valve disease, a rare and serious genetic condition that can lead to fatal complications if not diagnosed and treated.Chris Willaert has been an athlete and coach for most of his life, and he has taken his share of hits along the way. But nothing he experienced on the playing field or wrestling mat compared to what he felt one afternoon at work last May. Chris was "talking with a couple of co-workers when he felt a searing pain in the middle of his chest," reports the Mankato Free Press. He tells us the pain "came on so hard and so fast, it felt like I'd been shot." His worried co-workers "asked if they should call an ambulance," but the hard-pushing director of the Mankato Sports Commission waved off that suggestion.

Instead, Chris lay down briefly in his office, and then told his colleagues he was going home to take a nap. But a quick call to his girlfriend pushed him to make a different decision. "She told me to go to the ER," Chris says. And though he suspected nothing more than "an extreme case of heartburn" was causing his pain, he headed to Mayo Clinic Health System in Mankato, Minnesota, where he was diagnosed with an aortic aneurysm. When he was told a Mayo One helicopter was on the way to transport him to Mayo Clinic's Rochester campus for treatment, Chris knew things were serious.

At Mayo Clinic, Chris was evaluated, stabilized and prepped for surgery. Lyle Joyce, M.D., Ph.D., a cardiovascular surgeon, explained the procedure and asked if Chris had any questions. There was just one: "I wanted to know how long it would be until I was throwing a baseball again," Chris tells us. "That's when I'd know life was back to normal." The estimate: about three months. The next morning, Chris had a five-hour open-chest procedure. He learned afterward that he has bicuspid aortic valve disease, a rare and serious genetic condition that can lead to fatal complications if not diagnosed and treated. "Most people who have it don't find out about it until the autopsy," he tells the Free Press.

After less than a week in the hospital, Chris returned home. He started cardiac rehabilitation at Mayo Clinic Health System in Mankato on May 27, and by the end of June, just a month later, he was back in the lineup to pitch for the coach-pitch portion of his son's baseball games. The dedicated coach is quick to praise the health care team that got him back in the game. "I owe my life to those doctors, and I owe what my life is like to the guys in cardiac rehab," he tells us. He also says the experience has changed his outlook. "When you get a second chance, there's a reason," he says. For Chris, that means spending more time with his kids and less time "sweating the small stuff."

His new philosophy can be summed up by a saying on a T-shirt he received for Christmas: "Live life like a 3-1 count." His translation: "Every day is a fast ball. Take a swing. Hit it out of the park."

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Tags: Dr Lyle Joyce, Mayo Clinic Health System, Mayo One, Patient Stories

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