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A Heartbeat Away

Cardiac screening detected Adrian wrestler’s dangerous aortic valve defect

Clarence Kennedy returned to action in November during Adrian’s first meet of the season, nearly a year after he was ordered to stop wrestling. ADRIAN COLLEGE PHOTO

For an hour, Clarence Kennedy lay on an examination table and let a medical technician affix electrodes to his chest, then coat it with cool gel and glide a device over him that peered inside. While it was a tedious way for a college freshman to spend a December morning, he took deep breaths when asked, held his breath when prompted, and dutifully waited for the hour to expire. Then he put his shirt back on, left the makeshift screening room and returned to his life as a newly minted Adrian College wrestler, unaware of the detour his life had just taken.

Each of Adrian’s more than 450 athletes underwent that screening — an echocardiogram, vascular ultrasound and electrocardiogram — in fall 2015. About 10 were subsequently called into athletic training offices and told they would need to see a cardiologist. Most cried or fretted until more tests revealed false positives. One, though, learned he had a leaky aortic valve that was causing his heart to grow and stiffen — in mere months, the damage would be irreversible and the complications potentially fatal. But because Clarence happened to choose a college where rigorous heart screening had just become the new standard, his heart’s subtle flaw could be fixed.

“It saved his life, that decision,” says his mother, Krista Kennedy.

Clarence had been an athlete since second grade — first football, then wrestling. He had undergone a trio of surgeries — an ankle, both shoulders — but his body never hinted about the time bomb inside his chest. Wrestling lured him to Adrian, where he thought he would have a chance to make up for an injury-ravaged high school career. But that heart screening garnered a referral to a cardiologist that led to an MRI, which, by January, resulted in an order to stop wrestling immediately. “It felt like I was done wrestling forever,” Clarence says. “It was just crushing.”

Next came a 20-minute procedure in which a physician snaked a sensor into his esophagus to get clearer images of his heart, which would help determine if the valve could be repaired or replaced. Repair, an unlikely option, meant a relatively quick recovery and a return to normal activity.

Replacement, depending on the method, meant either a life without physical activity or another procedure a decade later. On March 9 at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, anesthesia tugged the 19-year-old under for 12 hours. He awoke to news that the valve had been repaired — not only was he safe, but he would wrestle again. “At that point, we just kind of lost it,” Krista says. “Oh my gosh, we didn’t have to ... It wasn’t as bad as what we thought.”

Recovery, though, would be no simple chore: Clarence’s pectorals had been cut, his sternum split. He spent two days in the intensive care unit, and he won’t soon forget the feeling of a pair of drainage tubes being dragged out of his chest cavity. Afterward, nurses warned that even small breaths would torment him. “They weren’t wrong,” he says.

Clarence wrestled at 215 pounds in high school, but after being told not to test his heart for weeks before and after surgery, he ballooned to 280. Once doctors cleared him to resume training in the summer, he was shocked that the muscles that once made him a first-team all-district heavyweight wrestler struggled to press 20-pound dumbbells.

Since returning to campus in the fall, he has whittled his frame to 240 pounds and has started competing again. Adrian head athletic trainer Jamie Fetter doesn’t pay Clarence more attention than any other athlete — conditioning deficits aside, his health is no different from his teammates’. Krista permits herself to fret occasionally, but trusts the medical team that arranged the screening that saved her son.

The medical community remains split regarding whether the benefits of electrocardiograms outweigh their costs. The NCAA cardiac care guidelines don’t require them, for instance, but offer guidance for schools that do use them. But Fetter says Adrian will continue to perform the tests on all athletes each year. He and his staff gladly handle the burden of coordinating times with hundreds of athletes, fielding questions from parents about insurance coverage, and sending a handful of anxious students to follow-up appointments.

“It is hard to bring people in this office. There’s a couple of them that it obviously causes some panic, and there’s some tears,” Fetter says. “But it makes it worth it because of Clarence.”

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Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.

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