Last winter, Kaci Arjes was told she’d never play basketball again. Born with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a genetic condition that thickens the heart muscle and makes it harder for the heart to pump blood, the then-freshman was told by doctors that her high school basketball career was over before it even had a chance to begin.
Then Kaci and her family came to Mayo Clinic to seek a second opinion from Michael Ackerman, M.D., Ph.D., a cardiologist in Mayo’s Long QT Syndrome/Genetic Heart Rhythm Clinic. Dr. Ackerman, the Mason City, Iowa, Globe Gazette reports, “currently treats 250 athletes like Kaci who were told by other doctors that they couldn’t play sports.”
Rather than keep Kaci off the court for fear of what could happen, Dr. Ackerman worked with Kaci and her family to develop a personalized plan that would allow her to continue playing the sport she loves and has played alongside her twin sister since the third grade.
First, Kaci would undergo a series of tests to determine how severe her condition was and whether she was at an increased risk for sudden cardiac arrest. Then Dr. Ackerman worked with her coaches and school officials to develop a “worst-case scenario safety plan.” That plan, the paper reports, includes keeping an automated external defibrillator, or AED, in her gym bag and requires that 911 be called and the AED employed if ever “Kaci collapses and doesn’t wake up in 10 seconds.” She also returns to see Dr. Ackerman every six months to monitor her heart's health.
While it may be easier to tell Kaci and others like her that playing competitive sports is no longer in their best interest, Dr. Ackerman tells the Gazette that’s an old, life-limiting way of thinking. Cardiologists historically have felt "it was their duty to disqualify,” he says. “If you have a sudden-death predisposing disease, then our role was to prevent from engaging in any competitive sport. What we do so much in medicine now, however, is shared-decision making.”
That kind of decision-making, Dr. Ackerman says, involves sitting down with athletes and their families to discuss the risks and to decide “if that sport is an acceptable risk in their world view.”
When it comes to basketball, for Kaci and her family, the answer is a definitive yes. “As with any parent, just being able to watch your child living life to the fullest and doing the things they love is truly the greatest blessing,” Kaci’s mom, Cindy, tells the Gazette. “Watching her getting to play with her twin sister again is an unbelievable feeling as well.”
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