The irony of what happened to Scott Dolezal on the morning of Aug. 1, 2009, is that he was in the best shape of his life.
It was the annual time trial for the cross-country team at Westminster High, a prep school in Atlanta. For most of the runners, the race was about setting a new personal best. For Scott, it was about finishing.
In two previous trials he hadn't completed the 5K course, done in by a combination of the sweltering Georgia heat and poor conditioning that made any endurance test a challenge. Born with a congenital heart defect, Scott underwent heart surgery when he was a week old. The heart condition didn't affect him in most sports—he was the leading scorer on the jayvee lacrosse team as a sophomore—but cross-country was torture. "Honestly, he was awful," says his father, Craig. "If he didn't finish last, he'd finish second to last."
That Scott was back on the team as a junior was a testament both to his charismatic coach, Joe Tribble, and to Scott's perseverance. For the first time he'd spent the summer training, and he was ready. The race began, and as always Scott drifted to the rear of the pack, his breath coming in short, labored bursts. "He looked like he was suffering," says his dad, "but he always looked like he was suffering."
October 17, 2010
With a half mile to go, Scott, in third-to-last place, disappeared into a grove of maple and oak trees. A few minutes later came a call, loud and scared: "Runner down!" Tribble sprinted toward the grove, arriving just after Bill Barber, a surgeon who was on hand to cheer for his son. What they found was terrifying: Scott, who had crumpled in midstride and toppled into a small ravine, was not breathing. He had no pulse, and his skin had turned a ghastly purple. Clinically speaking, he was dead, having suffered a massive heart attack. And that's where it would have ended if not for what the Dolezal family calls "a sequence of miracles." If Barber hadn't been at the race to perform CPR; if the school trainers hadn't arrived with an automated external defibrillator to restore a hint of a pulse; if the 911 ambulance hadn't blasted through Atlanta traffic; if Piedmont hospital doctors hadn't induced hypothermia to prevent neurological damage; if the hospital hadn't been one of a handful with a TandemHeart device, which allowed Scott's blood to flow in spite of his nonfunctioning heart and lungs—if any of these things hadn't occurred, Scott wouldn't have had a chance.
But he did, barely. That first evening, doctors told Craig Dolezal and Lucy Mueller, Scott's mom, that Scott wouldn't make it through the night. Lucy refused to believe it. She'd always said the family had a survivor gene inherited from her father, who'd endured two years at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Now it was Scott's turn to fight. Three days later, when he opened his eyes, Scott found quite a reception; 100 people had gathered, including the cross-country team, to keep vigil.
It was three weeks before Scott could get out of bed. Blood clots had developed in his right leg from the knee to the ankle, and the doctors had operated on the leg to clear them out. They had tried skin grafts to repair the leg, but an infection had set in. It was clear that the leg wouldn't make it. On Sept. 16, Scott said a prayer and went under. He woke up to find only a thigh and the knob of a knee where his right leg used to be. That afternoon Tribble sat with Scott, as he had so many days. His message: Keep perspective. That's tough for any 17-year-old, for whom life's small moments—prom, homework, a crush—can seem momentous. To Scott keeping perspective seemed impossible. What's more, he still had to undergo heart surgery again, to correct the cause of the heart attack.
The doctors discovered that the attack had resulted from a kink in one of Scott's coronary arteries, an unfortunate result of his earlier heart surgery, and they were able to restore Scott's heart to full function. Buoyed by this success, Scott set his first goal: using a prosthesis to accompany his history class on a walking tour of Europe 10 months later. It got him thinking. If he could hike, why not run? Which is how he came to be back at the track for the annual time trial on Aug. 2, 2010. You know what they say about facing your fears? Well, Scott was going to hunt his down.
He'd have to go through those woods three times, each stride a test of his new leg, his reconditioned heart and his courage. At the 1½-mile mark he faltered. It was too tiring. Then, as he says, "I thought about everyone who'd been there every day at the hospital" and how important it was "to do something I never thought I'd be able to do." He pushed on, entering that grove of oak and maple for the final time. Watching from the finish line, Craig felt sick to his stomach. And then, just like that, Scott emerged, his trot now practically a sprint. He crossed the line and hugged his bawling parents, breathing in the moment. No one cared that it had taken 52 minutes. For the first time at Westminster, Scott had completed a time trial.
Which led to another thought: Why stop there? Last month Scott got a new prosthesis, and he's in the process of getting clearance from his cardiologist. Lacrosse season starts in a few months, and the team could use an attacker, preferably one who never gives up on a play. Or anything else.
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Scott had crumpled during the race and toppled into a small ravine. He wasn't breathing; he had no pulse. And that's where it would have ended.