Anoka High School athlete's condition could have caused a stroke; doc says to take it easy.
Anoka High School sophomore Gavin Putt took a pass on a medical screening offered in his health class last fall. His teacher this trimester made the in-class screenings mandatory, and for Putt, it may have been a lifesaver.
His blood pressure reading came in high -- 183/86 -- and more tests revealed that, for all of his 16 years, the avid hockey and soccer player has had a congenital heart condition that is potentially fatal if he overworks his heart.
"Without that class," said Putt's father, Jay, "we'd be relying on his next physical and hoping nothing happens in between."
The screenings in the Healthy Living class are meant in part to make abstract medical issues real to students. For Gavin Putt, they made things very real.
"It's hard," he said. "I don't feel any different. I feel like I should be doing the same stuff I've been doing all along."
When Putt told his parents about his blood pressure reading early last month, his dad didn't believe it.
"I said, 'Really? Come on,'" Jay Putt recalled. After all, Gavin was in peak shape midway through the junior varsity hockey season. By all external measures, he's in excellent health.
But visits to the pediatrician and a cardiologist revealed a constriction of a vital blood vessel, a condition called coarctation of the aorta. If left untreated, it could cause a stroke at any time.
At first, a doctor told him, "'You're done with sports,'" his dad said. "His face got red, and he welled up."
"That's all I do," Gavin said.
Dr. Jeff Chambers, a cardiologist at Mercy Hospital who is not familiar with Putt's case specifically, said that, in general, a healthy patient could return to competitive sports -- if he is treated successfully with angioplasty and a stent or surgery and has not had heart damage from the condition.
After a meeting with Gavin's cardiologist last week, the family was told that, although the blockage is quite severe, Gavin will be able to have the less invasive of two possible options, Jay Putt said. On March 21, he'll have the first of two angioplasties and a stent inserted to expand the artery. If all goes well, he'll be cleared for sports in a few weeks. In three months, he'll go back for a second treatment to open the artery the rest of the way. That's a much simpler answer than the other, surgical repair that would require a longer recovery time and a frightening list of possible complications.
Over the past 16 years, about 10,000 sophomores at Anoka and Coon Rapids high schools have had the health-class screenings through a program administered by Allina Hospitals and Clinics and funded by the hospital group and the local Lions Clubs. Especially in recent years, the program has uncovered an increasing number of cases of abnormal blood pressure, cholesterol and glucose levels. In many instances, unhealthy scores have prompted students to change their diets and lifestyles.
In a few cases, such as Gavin's, the screenings have uncovered problems requiring more immediate action.
The last round of screenings at Anoka and Coon Rapids found 60 students with abnormal blood pressure, glucose or cholesterol levels, about 19 percent of the kids who were tested. Allina is working on a program to improve follow-up with parents, either through the school nurses, or with a case manager in instances where families lack health insurance, said Brenda Link, manager of Mercy and Unity's wellness program.
Starting next year, the program will be expanded to all five Anoka-Hennepin high schools, each trimester during the school year. It won't be mandatory, as teacher Jeff Buerkle made it in Gavin's class, but will be strongly encouraged.
Grateful but stressed
The Putts have been told that Gavin's problem likely stemmed from a remnant of the blood vessel that connected Gavin to his mother's placenta, which should have closed in infancy but didn't. Scar tissue built up and created a constriction. Previous checkups, including an eighth-grade physical and treatment for a broken ankle last year, didn't flag any problems.
The most severe cases of the condition can cause congestive heart failure in infants, Chambers said. In rare cases, it goes undetected until adolescence and adulthood, when a larger body needs more blood than the blocked artery can deliver.
Left untreated, Chambers said, the heart works overtime to try to force oxygenated blood through the constricted vessel. Competitive sports put an additional strain on the already overtaxed heart.
The Putts say they're thankful to have gotten the diagnosis, but it's been a frightening, stressful time.
"Your kid's healthy, athletic, eats right, you don't understand why he has high blood pressure," Jay Putt said. "Then you come down to the root cause. It's all a little scary at times."
The condition can run in families, and it's more common in boys, Chambers said. Although they don't know of any other cases in the family, Jay Putt and his two other sons, Logan, 18, and Quinn, 11, are monitoring their blood pressure and will have more extensive screenings later on.
Gavin, who sat out his team's last half-dozen games, has filled part of the hockey void by helping with the squirt team that his dad helps coach. Even there, he has to take it easy.
Now, a time to wait
The past month has been an emotional roller coaster, Jay Putt said. There was a low point when the problem was identified, then hope when they learned it could be treated, then another low point when they realized just how serious the constriction was. Now, knowing Gavin can take the simpler treatment route, the family is optimistic again, he said.
If all goes well, Gavin should recover in time to play his summer soccer season, with a three-week break for his second treatment and recovery for captain's practice in late summer.
"It's hard to explain," he said. "It's a flood of emotions that kind of comes and goes. You get your mind set on one thing and it shifts."
Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409