By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS
Even though freshman running back Andrew Lovell didn’t carry the ball in his first game for Methodist University, he may already own a national record. Lovell is believed to be the first college football player to take the field with a device implanted inside him to correct potential heart problems.
Lovell got in for a handful of plays in the small North Carolina school’s 18-0 win over Newport News Apprentice on Sept. 5.
“When you play, nothing else in the world matters for that short amount of time,” said Lovell, who had the device implanted under his armpit after the heart problems he had as a baby came back four years ago. The implantable cardioverter defibrillator, which is about the size of a stopwatch, is intended to shock his heart back into rhythm if necessary.
For Lovell, 18, playing football is a “family tradition.” So is heart disease. Lovell was just 6 months old when he had open-heart surgery to fix a hole in his heart. In 2009, his little sister Mary Kate died from the same defect.
“Football has helped me with the loss of Mary Kate,” he said. “You know, once you’re out there, it’s just you and your teammates for three hours and there’s not a worry in the world.”
The summer before his freshman year in high school, Lovell was rushed to surgery after his heart problems returned. He came out with a defibrillator and was told no sports. Period.
“They took him out of everything,” said his mom, Jill Lovell of Aynor, South Carolina, a two red-light town outside Myrtle Beach. “They wouldn’t even let him ride a bike.”
Although doctors were opposed and his high school coaches were reluctant, the Lovells were determined to find a way for their son to play football because he was devastated when told he couldn’t.
“It crushed me because football has always been a big thing in my family and I grew up my whole life playing football,” Lovell said. “So being told ‘no’ was like the end of the world. But I never gave up because Mary Kate wouldn’t want me to give up.”
Eventually his cardiologist at the time, Philip Saul, M.D., signed a release allowing Lovell to play.
Lovell’s mom researched gear to protect implantable cardioverter defibrillators like Lovell’s from damage on the field and found a flexible material that gets hard as cement. With the help of a seamstress, she designed a shirt that helps hold the shield over Lovell’s ICD. The first time he practiced with it in high school, she wrapped her son’s torso in plastic wrap for good measure.
Then she held her breath.
“We were nervous,” she said. “Every time he steps on the field we’re nervous.”
But Lovell was ecstatic. And his teammates don’t treat him any differently, he said. “The first game back was something to remember for a lifetime,” he said. “Taking the field with my teammates and hearing the fans cheering, it was like music to my ears knowing that I was back where I belonged.”
The National Athletic Trainers’ Association said it is unaware of any other college football players with defibrillators, and NCAA spokesman Chris Radford said his organization does not track such information.
Bob McEvoy, vice president and director of athletics for Methodist University, said the NCAA requires a medical exam of all student athletes before they can play intercollegiate sports. The football team’s physician and the university’s certified athletic trainers collaborated with Lovell’s cardiologist Nicole Cain, M.D., who signed a university release allowing Lovell to play football.
“Safety and welfare are No. 1 for us, and we wanted to make sure all the medical personnel were on board with the fact that Andrew could participate. We got nothing but green lights,” McEvoy said.
Despite a 2005 report from the Bethesda Conference that recommends against competitive sports for patients with ICDs, some choose to play, according to the NCAA. The University of Washington’s Kayla Burt and High Point University’s Allan Chaney both played basketball with ICDs, and both ended their careers after receiving ICD shocks during games.
The NCAA is expected to release new best practice recommendations later this year for athletes with diagnosed heart conditions, Radford said. The American Heart Association and American College of Cardiology are releasing guidelines this fall.
A 2013 Yale University Medical School study found that many athletes with ICDs can engage in vigorous and competitive sports without physical injury or failure to stop a dangerous heart rhythm, despite ICD shocks that may occur during sports.
Several years ago, when Lovell was horsing around with friends, the device shocked him six times. He later learned that it had malfunctioned.
“It dropped me flat to my knees,” he said. “They say it is equivalent of getting kicked by a horse.”
Jordan Prutkin, M.D., said patients with ICDs can have appropriate or inappropriate shocks with exercise — and there’s a small chance the device might not work during intense exercise.
But restricting sports can significantly reduce quality of life, said Prutkin, associate professor of medicine and director of operations at the Electrophysiology Center for Sports Cardiology at the University of Washington. Patients who want to play sports should make an informed decision, “knowing that there are small risks involved,” he said.
Playing football with an ICD could cause an irregular heartbeat and possibly damage the device, said Lovell’s cardiologist Cain, an assistant professor of pediatric cardiology at the Children’s Heart Program of South Carolina. But the fact that Lovell’s device is in his armpit instead of his chest decreases those risks, as does sticking to his medications, she said. Plus, he has taken multiple exercise stress tests without any irregular heartbeats.
As Methodist prepares for Saturday’s game against Guilford, Lovell can barely wait.
“Now, playing in college and looking back, it makes me cherish the game more than ever,” he said. “Now I see that it’s a privilege to play this game.”
Photos courtesy of Jill Lovell