“I’m still alive and working towards my dream,” says Richard Jetter following his heart diagnosis and subsequent surgery.
Richard’s mother Teresa Hunt talks about the lack of awareness among parents when it comes to heart conditions that affect young athletes and advocates for schools to require cardiac testing to help prevent tragedies.
“Thank goodness Richard went into atrial fibrillation.”
Not words you would expect to hear from the mother of a 16-year-old athlete, but in Richard’s case, A-fib likely saved his life. While in the emergency room waiting to be cardioverted (a procedure in which an electric current is used to reset the heart’s rhythm back to its regular pattern), doctors performed an echocardiogram. It was this imaging that discovered Richard’s coronary artery anomaly—the #2 leading medical cause of sudden cardiac death in young athletes and a condition that cannot be detected by an EKG.
By most accounts, Richard Jetter is lucky to be alive. At 6’6” tall, he has been active in sports for more than half of his life, playing football from the age of seven, running 5Ks starting at the age of ten, and most recently training hard in basketball to prepare for college and hopefully beyond.
Like in the case of so many other young athletes, Richard has experienced no symptoms that would indicate a heart condition and has passed all of his physicals. That makes it hard to think about what could have happened had Richard’s A-fib not occurred.
It was just over a year ago when Richard’s mother, Teresa Hunt, received a shocking call from the school nurse telling her to take Richard to the ER because his heart was skipping beats.
“Many parents think that if their child has no symptoms and is healthy, like Richard was, there is nothing to worry about,” she says. “I shiver now when I think about what could have happened to my child—all those years of physical activity with this ticking time bomb in his heart. A-fib was truly a blessing.”
To fix his coronary artery anomaly, Richard underwent a surgical procedure called coronary unroofing and was back to modified training just five weeks later. Richard currently trains with DeWayne Brown, founder of 2/10ths Speed & Agility in Pittsburgh, who he has been with since he was seven years old. Richard is gearing up to impress on the basketball court his senior year at Brashear High School and plans to play in college and someday make it to the NBA. Teresa is thankful her son’s heart condition was discovered early—not only to prevent an unforeseen tragedy, but also so his condition could be addressed in time for his senior year, when it is important to shine on the court to attract the interest of college recruiters.
Teresa strongly believes catching these unsuspected heart conditions early is so important.
“I think that most parents are unaware of potential heart problems that could affect their children, like I was, and they don’t know how to get their kids checked out,” she states. “Parents are dedicated to helping their children succeed in sports and are not thinking about things that can take them out of the game or, worse, cause death.”
Teresa now advocates for schools to offer this important cardiac testing to students. “I know there are mothers out there who weren’t as lucky as I was to have their child go into A-fib to discover a problem, and I want to do whatever I can to prevent as many future heartbreaks as possible,” she says with emotion.
As for Richard, he wants fellow athletes to know that heart conditions don’t necessarily mean the end of sports.
Both Teresa and Richard starting researching heart abnormalities after the diagnosis, and Richard reached out to a number of pro athletes with heart conditions who have been able to return to the game. Retired NBA player Etan Thomas is one. In 2007 he underwent open heart surgery to repair a leak in his aortic valve and was back on the basketball court nearly one year later. Etan not only responded to Richard’s initial contact but continued to stay in touch throughout Richard’s recovery. His best advice? Be patient.
Throughout his ordeal, Richard has looked at his situation as something positive that pushed him harder, and he has never lost sight of his end goal. “I believe I can overcome anything now—all it takes is resilience in the face of adversity,” he says. “I’m still alive and working towards my dream.” Richard’s positive energy was hard not to notice even as he prepared for his procedure. “Richard wasn’t afraid one bit going into surgery,” Teresa says. “In fact he literally danced down the hallway to the operating room and vowed to dance out too.” Richard would tell you that his thoughts were already on his recovery and returning to basketball. And that is exactly what he has done.