My story starts at a time when I was just 18 months old. A time when my parents received the news that no parent ought to hear. A diagnosis of three holes forming within their daughter's still-beating heart and that open-heart surgery was their only hope. At the age of 18-months, getting ready for a very strenuous 16-hour surgery was terrorizing. The thought of doctors using a heart-and-lung machine to keep my chest pumping during surgery, was not something that settled easily with my parents.
But with 180 stitches, five metal twist ties connecting my sternum, and a feeding tube later, doctors say that the holes are fixed and the surgery a success. Assuring my parents that there shouldn’t be any issues later on in life. So long as I came in for yearly checkups and paid close attention to what my body was telling me. That even though this was a major surgery, it will not limit me from participating in sports when growing up.
Hockey - Adapting for the Love of the Game
Fast forward about two and a half years, my parents decided to sign me up for skating lessons. They bought me a pair of my own skates, a protective helmet, a set of gloves, and took me to the Farmington Ice Arena in Farmington Hills, Michigan. They laced me up, got me strapped in protective gear, and guided me on my first walk onto the ice.
I was so excited to walk out on the ice. After all, I grew up in a hockey family and it’s really all I knew; even at a young age. But as I got closer to the ice, I started to hold back, telling my parents “No, no, no, I don’t want to go out there!”
Do you think they listened? Of course not! They opened the door onto the rink, led me out on the ice, and slammed the door behind me as they walked away. It’s safe to say that this day of me begging to get out, had changed my life forever. That is where my love for hockey began.
Growing up, I always played hockey at the highest level possible. Even playing on boys’ teams for many years, making sure I was always competing against the best.
Not once did I imagine that a forgotten past would come back to haunt me, and old wounds would bleed anew. I never thought that my heart would slow me down again.
I went for 10 years strong with no issues, pushing myself to the limits on and off the ice.
Symptoms of Effort
But then, on the day of my state playoff game, at the age of 14, I started seeing black dots. The dots kept getting bigger and darker till the point where I could hardly see two-feet in front of myself.
I thought I was just overly excited about winning. However, I also started becoming short of breath.
I could feel my heart pounding in my chest, beating way too fast for just sitting on the bench.
Luckily, the game was almost over, so I just sat on the bench until the end hoping my torment would pass.
It didn’t! After the game was over, I stumbled into the locker room and begged for my parents to rescue me. I still couldn’t see anything, and it felt like a weight the size of an elephant was sitting on my chest.
My parents rushed me to the hospital. After some short tests and a check of my vitals, I was sent on my way because “nothing seemed wrong.”
Due to the uncertainty of my condition I had to ask myself if I would allow my circumstance to slow me down? If I would allow a condition to influence my life and keep me from achieving my goals? The answer was simple- no!
I came back to the rink the next day, ready to prove myself. I was eager to win a State championship, which unfortunately would not be won by our team that year. Regardless, I took my experience as a victory, testing my limits while successfully finishing off the season without any episodes.
Strength to Carry On
A couple years passed by without any issues, pushing myself harder throughout the years with no episodes. That is until I reach the age of 16, while attending a Hockey-Canada fitness camp.
Not once did I think about my heart during the tryouts, knowing the doctor said nothing was wrong. I was getting ready to run the Rhiet, a three-minute sprinting test. My heart started racing, just thinking about the run made me nervous. I ran the test and by the last sprint, I started to get that weird feeling again. My vision blurred and black dots began enclosing my sight. My heart starts pumping as if it was about to escape my chest. I didn’t want to look weak, so I kept the pain to myself.
I just thought this is how everyone felt after the test, so I didn’t say a word. After about 20 minutes of lying around, my heart rate was still fairly high, and my vision still blurry. While I continued on with the rest of the camp, I was a little more cautious, a little more skeptical this time. After all, it was my second episode. But, once again, nothing else happened and I carried on with my life.
Hello, Madison! And Episode #3
In my senior year of high school, I was the happiest I have ever been. I was part of Team Canada Women’s Development team, and earned a scholarship to my dream school, the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I felt like nothing could stop me!
Throughout my freshman year at Madison, I felt on top of the world again. Attending my dream school and playing for a top Division I program was incredible. This heart issue had nothing on me!
I decided to train all summer in Madison to get ready for Team Canada camp. But then, during the middle of summer workouts, it happened again.
I was outside during a humid summer in Wisconsin, at Camp Randal Stadium. Every Thursday, our team would work out in the weight room in the morning, followed by stadium runs. Sprinting up stadium stairs in the heat was never fun, but it was something we had to get through as a team. But on this particular Thursday, in the middle of stadium runs, my vision started to vanish.
I couldn’t really see the stairs anymore. When I started walking down, my heart started beating faster and faster. I couldn’t catch my breath. The sensation of a heavy weight pressing down on my chest had returned.
My teammates noticed my struggles to walk in a straight line and gasping for air. They yell out to our athletic trainer to come rescue me, but before they were able to get to me, I was forced to the ground by the weight of my own body and succumbing to the lack of oxygen.
It took about 20 minutes for my heart rate to calm down and my vision to return. After some discussions with faculty and my athletic trainer, they decided it was time to go back to the cardiologist to see what was wrong. After an excruciating number of tests, once again, they were still unable to pinpoint what exactly was happening and why I was having these fainting episodes.
Detecting the Heart of the Problem
One day, a Hockey Canada medical staff member reached out to me and told me about a little device that you get placed into your chest. Right next to your heart, the device tracks everything from heart rate to electrical currents. My athletic trainer and parents did not hesitate, and I was off to the hospital to get this device put in. “It’s like a little USB port,” the doctor told me. “I’ll just have to freeze you up, make a little incision, put it in, and you’ll be all set to leave within the next hour.” I was thinking to myself: “finally something that might be able to catch what is causing these episodes”.
It’s early September, the beginning of my sophomore season, and I’m sitting in the doctor’s office where they hook me up to antibiotics to make sure nothing happens when this foreign object gets placed into my chest. The doctor comes in, asks my mom to leave, and gets ready to open me up. But before she could even start my throat started to close. My face beat red. In a very calm voice I ask:
Uhm, is it normal that I feel like my throat is closing? I can’t really breathe well.
Before I knew it, two nurses came barging in, they took one look at me and realized that I was having an allergic reaction to the antibiotics. After pumping me with some Benadryl, the surgeon went back to placing the device. A slight pinch, a little bit of pressure, and the device was placed.
I was told to resume my life as nothing has changed, now I just have a little USB port inside of me. The device gathered all sorts of information and was sending it back to the hospital. Whenever my heart rate got over a certain beat per minute, it would send a notification to the doctor’s office so they would be able to see what exactly was going on with my heart.
Having a USB type device implanted in your chest is not always the most comfortable thing, especially while playing a contact sport. I was timid at first, but as the weeks passed by, I got more comfortable with the feeling of the device, and it did not bother me nearly as much.
The Epsiode That Would Change My Life Forever
But on January 25th, 2015, when we were playing the Clarkson Golden Knights at home, my next, and arguably most important, episode happened.
Same symptoms. My heart was racing, almost breaking through my chest, and my vision started to be filled by little black dots.
All without even exerting any energy at this point. I tried to get out for my first shift, but it only lasted 30ish seconds before I came back to the bench. I called my trainer over and told him that I was having another episode. He walked me down the tunnel where I sat down with my head between my knees, taking slow deep breaths.
But oddly enough, my trainer and I were both kind of happy this happened. Happy because we were hopeful that the new device would catch whatever is going on. After about 10 minutes, I was back to normal, went back, and played the rest of the game with no issues.
Cure to my Affliction
The following weekend, we traveled up to Mankato, Minnesota. I will always remember this hotel and the very exact moment when I received a phone call from the hospital.
We were at a pregame meal and my phone started to ring. It was an unknown number, but I decided to answer it anyways...
Hello, is Mellissa there? This is UW-Madison hospital and we have some news for you.
My heart instantly sank. This was it. I am finally about to learn what is going on.
We are happy to let you know that the device did its job and we were able to pinpoint exactly what is going wrong with your heart. This will mean you need surgery, but you can finish your season.
I was so relieved! Finally! They found out what was wrong.
But then, it also hit me that I needed to undergo another heart surgery.
Time For Surgery
Early April, I went into the hospital for a pre-op appointment where I met the surgeon. He explained everything to me what he was going to do to fix me up.
You’ll be needing a cardiac ablation, basically, you have scar tissue that is blocking electrical currents in your heart which is causing you to have these episodes. And in case you were wondering, we recorded your highest heart rate at 237 beats per minute. Which is not supposed to happen.
After, he sent me on my way with a to-do list for the night before. All those fun rules you have to follow before you go in for surgery.
April 13, 2015. 6:30am. I arrived at the hospital, got checked in, changed into a gown, and waited for all the pre-op tasks to be finished.
The surgeon comes into the room and says:
Alright Mellissa, are you ready? Come with me.
My surgeon and I walked to the OR together. As we opened the doors, it was exactly how I pictured it, straight from a Grey’s Anatomy scene. I hopped up on the table, was covered in warm blankets and had multiple people placing pads on my chest.
“I’ll be entering through your neck, wrist, and groins, and make my way to your heart to start burning the area that is causing this issue. It’s nothing crazy, but what I need you to do is count backward for me starting at 100.”
100...99....98... and I was out.
Six and a half hours later, I’m finally awake.
I was able to go home the next morning. It’s crazy to think that just one night after heart surgery, I was up and walking around like nothing ever happened. Though some movements hurt, I was just too excited knowing my heart was finally fixed. Four months later, I got invited back to Hockey Canada camp where I was going to put the new heart to the test.
Nothing, no symptoms, and no episodes! My heart was fixed for good this time. I was able to push myself to my limits and not have any complications, and that in itself was a win for me.
Knowing I didn’t have to hold back anymore with the thought of having one of these episodes always lingered in the back of my mind. Not anymore. I finally had a fixed heart, and nothing could stop me now.
I went on to finish my last two years at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In my four years, my team won two WCHA league championships, three WCHA tournaments, and went to the Frozen Four every year. I had to stay an extra semester at school in order to fulfill all my credits, so I graduated in the Fall of 2017.
I currently play in the Canadian Women’s Hockey Leavue (CWHL) for the Toronto Furies. It is safe to say that after having this surgery, my outlook on life has changed drastically.
I used to be scared of pushing myself too hard, not knowing what was to come from it. I used to think I was weak, because I wasn’t able to do what everyone else was doing simply because I had heart surgery.
Now I know that this is all not true. I am completely capable of pushing myself to my limits and even past that. I know that I am not weak but in fact, I am strong. Stronger than what most people think. I was able to push through so many obstacles while pursuing a dream.
After my surgery, I asked my cardiologist for a copy of my EKG reading from when they found out what was wrong. The heartbeat looks a little different, so I got a tattoo of my special heartbeat to remind myself how strong I truly am. Not only do I have 180 stitches down my chest, I am also reminded every day when I look just below my heart and see the heartbeat that changed my life.