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Marfan touches the heart, but doesn’t grab it


The heart.

Such an engine for every human body, yet so fragile at the same time.

If we treat our hearts right, we treat ourselves right. If we treat them wrong, we do ourselves so much injustice.

Isaiah Austin only thought was doing his heart plenty of good. He stayed in shape, worked out, played basketball and became an NBA Draft hopeful.

He always played with a big heart, not letting his basketball dreams die even with a detached retina that left him partially blind in his right eye. And he won the hearts of many in the process.

But just a few days ago, he received some very bad news. Because of a genetic disorder called Marfan syndrome, he won’t be able to continue playing.

The mere sight of the headline has touched my heart for days. I have Marfan syndrome. And I almost feel guilty that I’ve been living like I don’t. Almost.

On one hand, the effects of Marfan can scare the daylights out of someone. The connective tissue that supports heart valves and blood vessels are affected. It threatens to rupture the aorta, which can lead to death. (The most notable victim of undiagnosed Marfan is Flo Hyman, a 31-year-old American volleyball player who died while sitting on the sidelines during a 1986 professional game in Japan.)

Marfan patients are characteristically tall and lanky, some abnormally tall. Flo was 6-feet-5. I’m 6-5. Isaiah is 7-1.

There is good news for those affected. If the disorder is caught early, regular checkups including echocardiograms and X-rays are implemented to keep an eye out for any potential of an aortic rupture, which can be averted through surgery. Still, the common cautionary measure that doctors issue is no strenuous activity.

That’s where Isaiah’s NBA dreams are derailed. He’s been told that playing at a high level is not worth the risk.

True, it’s not. On the other hand, I don’t let Marfan imprison my way of life.

I was an underweight 14-year-old, scared stiff about the syndrome after a few episodes of the heart. I had just made the football team and gone through offseason drills that included lifting weight heavier than me. I think I was about 6 feet and, oh, let’s say, 120 pounds at this point.

The summer came, and I had heart palpitations, then panic attacks. My life was in a jeopardy I didn’t understand until my diagnosis.

So, I just stuck with basketball — Isaiah’s sport. Played the next four years. Went through offseason. Earned two varsity letters.

Found out at 19 I had mitral valve prolapse, a common condition of Marfan patients, but took a beta blocker for it. From that point, I was afraid to do another workout, but somehow I had a thing for refereeing basketball games.

Since March, I’ve been working out regularly again, trying to lose some of the weight I clamored for a generation ago as a scrawny, picked-on guy. The mere thought of Marfan still touches me at 34, but it’s faith in God that has led me this far and allowed my mind to be free from worry.

I also don’t have an NBA future to work toward. Isaiah did.

Maybe with a second opinion and a desire to beat the odds, he can again. I’m just not going to tell a 20-year-old to throw caution into the wind.

But I do know, whether or not he should give up the game for good, he cannot let Marfan syndrome grab his heart — or his mind.

I.C. Murrell is the sports editor of The Commercial. Email him at imurrell@pbcommercial.com.