camden thrailkill

Photos courtesy of the Thrailkill family

DENTON, Texas – With a highlight-reel sliding catch, centerfielder Camden Thrailkill sealed Denton Guyer’s victory 8-7 over Lewisville.

In the stands, his parents could only marvel.

“You’d never have expected this,” said Rik, his dad. “Just to see him out there competing, and the joy on his face, is great.”

“It’s just remarkable how quickly he resumed being a normal teenager,” said his mother, Elizabeth.

That’s because last fall Camden, who’s 15, suddenly went from a dedicated, promising athlete to a heart patient who was facing surgery that threatened to bench him for good. A fortuitous screening, an innovative robotic procedure and unwavering determination put Camden back on the field in remarkable time.

“I’m blessed in a lot of ways,” he said. “It’s amazing.”

Camden grew up near Denton, 40 miles north of Dallas, a natural athlete who never met a sport he didn’t love. Last August his freshman football team at Guyer High School underwent heart screenings as part of a program sponsored that sponsors free or low-cost screenings for young athletes in North Texas and arranges donations of automated external defibrillators to area organizations. The organization, Living for Zachary, was founded by the family of Zachary Schrah, a 16-year-old football player who collapsed and died in 2009 on a practice field in Plano, Texas, from sudden cardiac arrest.

Camden’s screening revealed an isolated cleft of the mitral valve, a congenital heart defect that allowed blood leaving his heart to leak back in. Over time the condition can cause an enlarged heart, arrhythmias and heart failure.

He’d never had a symptom or a problem. He didn’t go back to practice.

Steven Mottl, M.D., a Denton cardiologist, said that nowadays, a congenital mitral valve problem is usually detected prenatally or early in life.

“Fortunately, the screening program still caught him at an early stage before he began to develop symptoms,” he said. “Usually, people aren’t aware until it gets severe and to the end stage, and that’s much harder to treat.”

The American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology recommend a 14-point checklist for screening young people for heart disease that does not include an electrocardiagram unless initial tests indicate it is necessary. Their joint scientific statement concludes that athletes are no more likely to have genetic heart diseases than the general population, and that current evidence does not show that universal ECGs would save lives.

Once Camden’s mitral valve problem was diagnosed, the initial recommendation was to perform a sternotomy, where surgeons split the breastbone to access the heart and repair the valve. But that would have meant a long, painful recovery – and no contact sports.

“We sat Cam down and told him,” Elizabeth said. “He thought we were kidding. We said, ‘No, honey, this is serious.’ Then the shock kind of set in. We asked the doctor about football. He said, ‘I don’t know, maybe golf.’ I said, ‘He likes golf, but he loves football.’”

Mottl and Dr. Robert Smith, a cardiac surgeon in Plano, had another idea. Robotic surgery – in which the surgeon guides small instruments through the body to perform the procedure – would require only small incisions on the side of the ribcage and avoid a sternotomy.

Just a few days before the scheduled surgery, the Thrailkills decided to try the robotic method. “We figured if this is curable, let’s do it in a way where he can return to the life he loves,” Elizabeth said.

Smith performed the surgery at The Heart Hospital Baylor Plano on Oct. 6, and three days later Camden went home. Three weeks later he was back in school. By December he was working out. He was at tryouts in January for the freshman baseball team, earning the starting centerfield job.

The AHA and ACC have a lengthy set of guidelines to help doctors determine whether people with heart issues – from hypertension to transplants – can continue participating in sports. They encompass factors such as genetics, the nature of the problem and likelihood of recurrence, and stress the need for follow-up care and the availability of automatic external defibrillators and CPR-trained coaches at athletic events.

Mottl said Camden’s superior conditioning and lack of coronary disease made his return to sports an easy call. “The repair was a success,” the cardiologist said. “We’ll keep an eye on it. But I think in five years you’ll look at an echocardiogram and you won’t even recognize he had a problem.”

The young athlete’s story has thrust him somewhat into the spotlight, where he’s not entirely comfortable.

“I don’t want to be known as the kid who had heart surgery,” he said. “I just want to put it all behind me. But I know it’s all bigger than I am, so I just have to learn to be a part of it. If there’s another kid in my situation I can help, I want to do that.”

Screening young athletes for heart disease