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Published November 21, 2012, 11:30 PM

Robin Huebner Reports: Davies student recovering from heart ailment

FARGO – The first sign of trouble was a feeling of pressure in his chest.

By: Robin Huebner, INFORUM

FARGO – The first sign of trouble was a feeling of pressure in his chest. Then he felt a little short of breath. The incident during basketball camp at Fargo Davies High School in June caught Al Bates off-guard.

Turns out, the now 16-year-old sophomore, who stands 6 feet 8 inches tall, had an undiagnosed medical condition that could have killed him.

Al chalked up the weird sensation that day to a difficult workout.

“I just thought it was something all kids had. That it was normal,” he said. “I mean, it hurt a little bit, but was more like pressure.”

Al’s father, Scott Bates, heard the news, and thought, “The kid is out of shape. Suck it up.”

But Al didn’t suck it up.

“It just stopped me. I had to sit out,” he said.

Al’s mother, Sue Bates, took him to the walk-in clinic, where an electrocardiogram and blood test turned out fine. But the doctor told them Al should probably have additional tests, just to be safe.

Diagnosis is made

Weeks went by, with Al still practicing and attending basketball camps, including one in Nebraska. He had no further symptoms.

Then in the blur of a busy summer, the family finally got him in for an echocardiogram, or heart ultrasound, in late July.

It showed something ominous – a congenital defect in one of Al’s coronary arteries – one that affects less than 1 percent of the population.

“His coronary artery opening was smaller than normal because it came off in an abnormal spot, so it was hard for blood to get out there in the first place,” said Al’s doctor, Sanford Health pediatric cardiologist Dr. Justin Horner.

When Al stressed his heart with exercise, the opening narrowed further, Horner says.

Nightmare averted

The news was tough to hear.

According to Sue Bates, “We all cried that night and said, ‘What just happened?’ ”

“It could have been a matter of time that Al would have been a statistic on the basketball court,” she said.

According to the National Athletic Trainers’ Association, sudden cardiac arrest is the leading cause of death in young athletes.

Few have forgotten Perham High School basketball player Zach Gabbard, who nearly died after collapsing during a game in January 2011.

“It’s the worst nightmare for a coach, to have something like that happen,” said Bart Manson, Davies High school boys’ basketball coach. “We’re just really lucky that Al didn’t try to play through it. He had enough sense to say, ‘I can’t go,’ which was really good.”

The family is a little more in tune to heart trouble. Heart disease runs in Scott Bates’ family, and he had to have quadruple bypass surgery nine years ago.

Al needed surgery, too. The open-heart procedure was set up for early September, but in the meantime, Al’s doctor put him on major restrictions. No running, no basketball, no lifting weights.

Open-heart surgery

Because of the type of anomaly Al had, the surgery couldn’t be done locally. Horner helped set it up at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

He said surgeons couldn’t move the abnormal artery into the proper position, because that could later cause scarring. Instead, they made the artery opening bigger.

Al had to be on a heart-lung machine for a short while during surgery and spent time in intensive care.

“Al was stoic through the whole thing. He was very brave,” said Sue, earning him the nickname “Braveheart” in the hospital.

Because the surgeon was able to make a smaller than expected incision, Al’s recovery is going faster than expected.

The family went from thinking Al might never be able to play basketball again, to him possibly being able to play in the first game of the season.

It will all depend on a stress test Dec. 3. If Al passes that, he can go back to full contact basketball.

“I can’t wait to see him play. I really can’t, knowing that he’s going to be OK,” his mother said.

Manson says Al will play junior varsity ball this season but could push for varsity time as well, depending on how things go.

Future dreams

After high school, Al dreams of playing college basketball – ultimately at the University of North Carolina – or closer to home at North Dakota State University.

He might also have a bright future in track and field. Al qualified for the state meet in high jump last spring and holds the Davies school record in that event, with a 6-foot-4-inch jump.

His doctor says Al should be able to do whatever he wants to do in the future. Because the defect was caught and corrected early, his heart should function normally.

Scott Bates hopes what happened to his son will make other kids and their parents more vigilant.

“There’s only 1 percent of people walking around with what he had. You’re not going to save the world, but one person, two or three people, children, you know, that makes a world of difference,” Scott said.

The experience has made the family closer. Scott and Al, along with Al’s two older brothers, made sure to get in their annual deer hunting trip to Montana recently. And they’re all feeling especially thankful on this Thanksgiving Day.

“It’s pretty amazing what could have been, and where we are today,” reflected Sue. “We’re very blessed.”

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