Learning to follow beat of his heart

High schools: Pain in Brian O'Connor's chest never kept him from the games he loved to play, until a near-fatal experience changed the Centennial athlete's perspective forever.

January 17, 2001|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,SUN STAFF

The night started with Brian O'Connor playing basketball, hitting jump shots in front of a large crowd, helping lead his team to an important victory.

It ended with O'Connor in a hospital bed, his chest hooked up to a heart monitor, his doctors concerned whether he'd survive.

In between, some of the most trying hours of 17-year-old Brian O'Connor's life played out before him. Hours that, for the moment, have taken one of Howard County's best athletes and turned him into a mere spectator.

"You don't ever want to think about something being wrong with your heart," O'Connor said. "As an athlete, you just want to go out there and play. Right now, that's pretty hard."

Two weeks ago, the 6-foot-1, 155-pound O'Connor was well into his long-awaited senior year, leading Centennial High's basketball team in scoring, acting as the undeniable and unselfish leader of a squad determined to repeat as league champions. O'Connor is the kid every coach wants on his team: the calm, steady leader; the smart, diligent student. He had trained all summer, stuck countless jump shots in gyms and back lots and readied himself for his final season of competitive basketball.

Then, suddenly, it appeared over.

A near-fatal scare

It started after he scored on a layup; O'Connor remembers that much. Sometime around the second quarter, he thinks. Centennial and River Hill were tied in a close game Jan. 5 that would have a big say in determining the Eagles' Howard County title chances, and the Centennial crowd was loud and volatile, chanting his name and thumping the bleachers. But through halftime and the rest of the game, it was O'Connor's chest that kept pounding, as if his heart kept getting bigger, moving faster.

"It felt like it was coming out of my chest like a cartoon character," he said. "When you lift up my shirt, you can see it beating. It's pretty scary."

And yet, it didn't stop him from helping Centennial beat River Hill, 58-51, or prevent him from leading all scorers with 22 points that night. Even after the game, as everyone filed out of the gym, O'Connor didn't say much to anyone besides his best friend, Eagles senior Kevin Laycock, who had seen him go through similar episodes since his freshman year, though never this bad.

"I remember going to my car that it was really cold outside and the change of temperature didn't help at all," O'Connor said. "After I drove home, I laid down and it started to get really painful. I was just praying [the pain] would stop."

O'Connor's parents, Jim and Denise O'Connor, almost didn't come home after the River Hill game. They considered going out to dinner, but instead steered home to check on their son first. When they came in the door, Brian was sprawled on the couch, sweating badly, in a lot of pain.

"We could tell right away he was not in good shape," Denise O'Connor said. "His heart was really racing; he was dizzy, and he didn't even want to talk because it hurt so much. It was really scary."

After a 911 call, paramedics arrived, and hooked him up to an electrocardiogram monitor. Doctors later told Brian his normal heartbeat should be about 70 beats a minute, but that night his heart was speeding around 210 beats, he said. In those tense moments, Denise O'Connor thought for certain her son was going to have a heart attack.

"We followed the ambulance to the hospital, and my husband and I were praying in the car," Denise said. "We were very frightened he was in bad shape."

Later, at the hospital, doctors told O'Connor that his condition, had it gone untreated that night, might have been fatal.

"Whenever we talked about my heart problem before, no one ever said the words `fatal,' " O'Connor said. "That was a pretty sobering thought."

Under control

Before the game against River Hill, O'Connor's heart condition was always something he simply dealt with. There were times, sure, during football when his heart would race out of control and cause his head to spin. But he had seen doctors and talked about it with his parents since it began happening his freshman year - the rapid, almost frantic pounding that sometimes doubled him over in pain. No one could find anything wrong.

"We were always watching it, but it was never real, real bad," said Brian's mother, Denise. "Not until the River Hill game at least."

And after all, there was so much about him that was right. O'Connor had played varsity basketball since he was a freshman, was named a captain by coach Jim Hill as a sophomore and earned second-team All-County honors as a junior. He was averaging 13 points and six assists this season.

In football this past season, he picked off nine passes as a safety and caught 20 more as a receiver to help the Eagles finish 6-4 and earn first-team All-County honors.

To top it off, O'Connor was also an impressive student, gaining early acceptance to Syracuse, where he planned to study communications, hopeful someday of working for ESPN.

Playing through pain

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