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Allan Chaney gets another chance to play the game he loves

August 18, 2012|By Connor Letourneau | The Baltimore Sun

After all, he had done his research. He was familiar with the stories of Reggie Lewis and Hank Gathers — basketball stars whose lives were cut short by heart conditions. He knew they didn't take the necessary steps to recover from their conditions before returning to the court, and he felt confident he could resume his career if he just gave himself the necessary time to heal. He would simply talk with other doctors to see if anyone shared his sentiment.

"We knew that his condition was serious," said Allan's father, Arthur Chaney, a Philadelphia firefighter. "But I don't think any of us resigned ourselves to a realization that he would never play again."

A second chance

Moments after walking into Dr. Francis Marchlinski's Philadelphia-area office for the first time in the fall of 2010, Chaney received the most positive news he had heard since collapsing in practice six months earlier.

Marchlinski, a University of Pennsylvania cardiologist who specializes in electrophysiology, had already looked over his medical records and told Chaney he could get him playing competitively. He mentioned a new wireless defibrillator, one that would be less likely to break or malfunction during extreme physical activity.

The only problem? It was a brand-new device and already had a two-year waiting list.

No matter. Marchlinski helped secure him a spot in a case study for the defibrillator — rapidly accelerating the process.

So last November, six months after Marchlinski performed a successful ablation procedure on Chaney, the doctor installed a backup defibrillator into the 22-year-old's chest. It offsets the possibility of irregular heartbeats and dramatically lowers the risk of another heart episode occurring.

However, because doctors were still able to induce irregular heartbeats when testing him under extreme conditions, Chaney underwent another surgical ablation procedure at Pennsylvania in March. Immediately after the surgery, Marchlinski stimulated Chaney's heart and "could not initiate any [irregular heartbeats]," Marchlinski wrote in a June news release.

After several more tests, Marchlinski granted Chaney medical clearance May 18 to resume his basketball career.

During the weeks after his clearance, Chaney trained daily with a high school friend. He played in pickup games at the Carmelo Anthony Youth Development Center, and said he held his own against the likes of Memphis Grizzlies guard Josh Selby and former St. John's star Marcus Hatten.

He then spent much of June in Blacksburg training with David Jackson, Virginia Tech's director of strength and conditioning. To the casual observer, the return trip might have seemed an odd decision.

After all, Virginia Tech's sports medicine department announced last August that it would never allow Chaney to practice or compete with the Hokies. Dr. Mark Rogers, the Hokies' team doctor, said earlier this summer that they don't typically re-evaluate such decisions.

"We wanted to make a decision in the best interest of Allan," Rogers said. "The last thing we would ever want is for another Hank Gathers-type situation to happen."

Safety first

The issue over whether athletes with heart conditions should be permitted to play raises questions of medical ethics, free will and legal liability. Schools and doctors must consider the player's well-being, of course, but they also must consider their own.

And when the stakes are literally life or death, the typical response is to refuse participation. If an athlete can't play, after all, he can't die playing.

"The schools want to save themselves," said Will Kimble, an assistant men's basketball coach at Cathedral High School (Calif.). "It's easy just to say, 'You can't play.' It's a quick fix."

Kimble should know. After collapsing during practice at Pepperdine University in November 2002, he was diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy — the same heart condition that killed Gathers during the West Coast Conference tournament in 1990.

He spoke with three doctors, all of whom told him he would never play basketball again.

But then he met Dr. David Cannom, the director of cardiology at Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles. Cannom implanted a defibrillator — complete with cords and everything — into his left shoulder.

By all accounts, the procedure was a success. After Texas A&M and UCLA retracted scholarship offers because of liability concerns, Kimble latched on with Texas-El Paso. He averaged 4.7 points over 64 games in two seasons (2004-05 and 2005-06) with the Miners and experienced no cardiac episodes.

"I never even thought about [the defibrillator]," Kimble said. "I just went out and played my hardest every night. I took charges and whatnot, and it was never a problem."

To this day, Kimble is the only Division I men's basketball player to complete a full season with a defibrillator implanted in his body. Chaney could be the second.

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