THE KID'S playing
with me, William Batts figured. One second 17-year-old DeCarlo Polk had gone up
confidently for a jumper, his chiseled 5'9", 237-pound frame rising just
beyond the free throw line in their game of one-on-one. The next, he had
tumbled to the Nashville blacktop like a piece of laundry at the end of a
dryer's cycle. Now, on the afternoon of June 27, DeCarlo lay flat on his back
in the simmering heat. Real funny, the 37-year-old Batts thought. But then he
took a step closer and saw that DeCarlo's pupils had rolled back into his
skull, and he knew it was no joke.
mid-jump the electrical signals that cued DeCarlo's heart to pump had misfired
terribly. Rather than flexing and contracting rhythmically, his heart trembled
like jelly in a shaken jar. His left ventricle, the chamber that takes
oxygenated blood from the lungs and sends it through the body, stopped working,
causing a circulatory traffic jam. As blood piled up in the lungs'
capillaries—vessels so small that red blood cells have to pass through them
single file—water in the bloodstream breached the capillary walls and settled
into the air sacs of his lungs, spaces normally reserved for oxygen. DeCarlo
had stopped breathing and started drowning.
Batts called his
boss—DeCarlo's uncle, Jimmy Boulton—at his paint shop three doors down, and
Boulton came running with Rick Jones, a coworker. Jones became DeCarlo's lungs,
blowing oxygen-rich air into his mouth. Then he became his heart, pushing down
on his chest to force the oxygenated blood through the lungs and into the rest
of his body. But CPR could only buy time.
Don't let this
happen, Boulton prayed, not now. On June 8,DeCarlo had graduated from Hillside
High in Durham, N.C., where he had been an honor student, homecoming king and
star defensive lineman. Football scholarship to Division II St. Augustine's
College in nearby Raleigh in hand, he was baptized two days later, then jumped
in Boulton's truck for his annual summer visit to Nashville, his hair still
pearled from the baptismal dip. Within a week of his arrival DeCarlo became the
proud cousin of Jimmy's third child, James Kerrigan Boulton Jr.
It took at least
10 minutes for the rescue workers to arrive; already DeCarlo's oxygen-deprived
brain cells were dying in droves. The paramedics applied defibrillators to
DeCarlo's chest, trying to fix the deadly rhythm that had begun in his left
ventricle. Throughout his heart electrical signals were ricocheting like
pinballs, spurring spastic muscle twitches. With each jolt from the paddles
DeCarlo's powerful body would lift and then flop limply to the ground. His
17-year-old heart was broken.
DECARLO WAS one
of an estimated 600,000 Americans with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), a
genetic disease that causes the walls of the left ventricle to enlarge, usually
during adolescence; the thickened ventricle does not relax fully, inhibiting
the flow of blood into the heart. While many will never exhibit a symptom, some
6,000 will die from HCM each year, more than from asthma and Hodgkin's disease
combined. In those HCM victims, the left ventricle's muscle cells, rather than
stacking up flush like bricks in a chimney, are arranged at odd angles, all
askew, as if the bricks had been tossed into a Dumpster. With the cells in such
disarray, an electrical signal crossing them is liable to travel in an erratic
path and fatally misfire.
cardiomyopathy is the most common cause of sudden death in young athletes,"
says Dr. Barry Maron,director of the Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy Center at the
Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation and one of the top experts on HCM.
"And it's the most common cause of [natural] sudden death in young people
in the general public. But it's still a little-known disease."
For those who
suffer from some of thenation's most common health problems, such as diabetes,
high cholesterol and coronary artery disease, exercise is a potent remedy. But
for those with HCM it is the most activeindividuals—the young (usually
teenaged) paragons of fitness—who are at higher risk of sudden death because of
their athletic pursuits. At least every two weeks an athlete with HCM will die
during or immediately after exertion, when his or her abnormally thick heart,
triggered by strenuous exercise, will start beating in a lethal cadence.
Some of the
victims are famous, such as San Francisco 49ers offensive lineman Thomas
Herrion, 23, who collapsed in the locker room minutes after a preseason game in
August 2005, and Jason Collier, 28, the Atlanta Hawks center who died in the
middle of the night two months later. But the majority are less well-known,
their lives just beginning, such as 16-year-old Adam Litteken, who went
lifelessly sliding across a hockey rink after he collapsed during an October
practice in St. Peters, Mo., and DeCarlo Polk.
Richards. During my senior year at Evanston (Ill.) Township High, Kevin, a
precocious freshman, became my friend and training partner in track. After I
went to Columbia in August 1998, Kevin helped Evanston win its first 4 ×
800-meter state title the following spring. By his junior year Kevin, the son
of Jamaican immigrants, was on his way to becoming the first member of his
family to attend college, most likely on a track scholarship. Indiana was high
on his list.