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Joe Scores an Escape

Wrestler Survives Life-Threatening Genetic Heart Disorder

As a world-class wrestler, Joe Heskett routinely overpowered his opponents. However, in October 2007, five days after placing fifth in the World Wrestling Championships, he confronted an opponent that put him on the mat—a career-ending genetic heart disorder.

Facing a New Opponent
Heskett, 29, an assistant coach for Ohio State’s wrestling team, was a likely candidate for the 2008 U.S. Olympic wrestling team. But during a routine practice days after returning from the world championships, Heskett felt something going badly wrong in his well-tuned athletic body.

“I was dizzy and my arms were going numb,” says Heskett. “I felt okay, but I knew I wasn’t okay.” With a heart rate of 260 beats a minute, Heskett was clearly not okay.

Thanks to the calm heads of the training staff, led by head trainer Todd Miller, Heskett’s heartbeat was corrected with an automatic external defibrillator. Taken to the OSU Medical Center Emergency Department, Heskett’s care was turned over to the experienced hands of James Ryan, MD, cardiologist and medical director of the OSU Heart Center at Mill Run.

“We determined that Joe has cardiomyopathy on the right side of his heart,” explains Dr. Ryan. “Generally, cardiomyopathy is a weakness or abnormality of the heart muscle, which can lead to congestive heart failure and heart rhythm disturbances. Joe had the most serious rhythm disorder, ventricular tachycardia, which can lead to sudden death.”

The sudden death of Heskett’s maternal grandfather at age 32 indicated that Heskett’s cardiomyopathy was caused by an inherited disorder called arrhythmogenic right ventricular dysplasia.

“I still can’t believe Joe wrestled at the level he did,” says Dr. Ryan. “If Joe were an

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A. Ejection fraction (EF) is a measure of your heart's output. EF is a percentage, or "fraction," of the total volume of blood in the heart's chambers that is ejected with each heartbeat and sent to the rest of your body. A normal EF is 50 percent or higher, and an EF below 50 percent may indicate heart muscle disease or cardiomyopathy. Your doctor can order a noninvasive, painless echocardiogram to measure your EF.

average person, he probably would have died from the ventricular tachycardia episode. He survived because of his superb physical conditioning.”

After extensive diagnostic testing, doctors implanted a defibrillator in Heskett’s chest. “Joe’s device is a newer model,” says Steven Kalbfleisch, MD, the electrophysiologist who diagnosed Heskett’s heart rhythm problem. “It’s called a dual-chamber implantable cardiac defibrillator, and it detects and corrects a rhythm problem within seconds.”

“In addition to his defibrillator, Joe is on several medications,” explains Dr. Ryan. “Of course, this disease ends his wrestling career, but he’s quickly moved on to his next challenge.”

Fortunate to be at OSU
Ohio State’s multidisciplinary approach to cardiac care is a big advantage for someone with Heskett’s condition. “I’m a sub-specialist in arrhythmias, which is primarily what Joe needs right now,” says Dr. Kalbfleisch. “But with his underlying genetic condition, he may progress to congestive heart failure and have other non-arrhythmic problems for which we have the facilities and the expertise to treat.”

Heskett is grateful for his care at OSU. “I was treated so well at The Ohio State University Medical Center,” he says. “Dr. Ryan is one of the finest human beings I’ve met, and I’d like to thank him and everyone at Ohio State for their support, because it makes a difference. It’s a special place.”

Moving On
“My immediate plans are really with my wife and family,” shares Heskett. “I have two little girls who are my life. As for my career, I’m focused on Ohio State wrestling and developing these young men with a strong emphasis on character.” Heskett also plans to pursue his MBA at OSU in the fall.

“We would have loved to fix Joe’s problem and restore his Olympic dream, but that’s not possible,” says Dr. Ryan. “But hopefully, he will be around to raise his kids, and I have great expectations for his achievements outside of wrestling. He is just a remarkable individual.”

All in the Family
The Hereditary Heart Rhythm Disorders Clinic at OSU, the only clinic of its kind in central Ohio, serves patients with hereditary heart rhythm disorders such as Long Q-T, Brugada Syndrome and others. The multidisciplinary team of experts includes electrophysiologists, nurses, medical geneticists, certified genetic counselors and pharmacists.

"We see many young people and their families who have, or suspect, genetic abnormalities," says Raul Weiss, MD, medical director of the clinic. "The sudden death of a relative will often bring in families. They want to understand the risks to themselves and their children, so we help them find answers."

Ross Expands to Meet Patients Needs
In June 2008, Ohio State's Richard M. Ross Heart Hospital opened its newest phase of expansion, which includes two new floors and an additional 60 inpatient beds, for a total of 150 inpatient beds and 22 preparatory and recovery beds. For the first time, Ross will be able to have dedicated electrophysiology and vascular surgery units. New technology added over the past year has included a Stereotaxis system, which uses powerful magnets to manipulate a cardiac catheter inside a patient's heart during electrophysiology procedures.

"The demand for our advanced cardiology services, particularly those for electrophysiology (EP) patients, has been growing," says Rich Davis, associate executive director, Ross Heart Hospital. "With this expansion, we've added physicians, technology and facilities that make OSU one of the largest EP programs in the country."

For a referral to a physician at The Ohio State University Medical Center, call (614) 293-5123 or (800) 293-5123 toll-free.