Anoka High teen rarin' to go after rare heart repair

  • Article by: MARIA ELENA BACA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 13, 2012 - 8:39 PM

The fix for a heart defect found during an in-class screening was more complex than expected, but Anoka High sophomore Gavin Putt is planning for soccer season.

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Gavin Putt and his parents Jay and Heidi Putt talked about his heart operation and his return to sports.

Photo: Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

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The narrow, 8-inch scar below Gavin Putt's left shoulder blade forever will serve as a reminder of how lucky he is just to be alive.

His family has known since winter that the multi-sport athlete had spent his 16 years walking around -- and running and skating and lifting weights -- with a potentially fatal heart condition. But their hopes for a simple solution vanished when surgeons learned they were dealing with something much thornier than anticipated.

In early February, the Anoka High School sophomore had brought home a troubling report: An in-school health screening showed Putt's blood pressure to be dangerously high, about 183/86. Visits to a pediatrician and a cardiologist indicated a blood vessel constriction, a condition called coarctation of the aorta.

Putt was taken off sports immediately, and missed the last half-dozen JV hockey games. He tried to fill the void by helping his dad, Jay, coach a squirt team.

Jay and Heidi Putt recalled March 16, the day they took their son to Children's Hospital in Minneapolis for the angioplasty they hoped would solve the problem. After 45 minutes, Putt's cardiologist, Dr. Charles Baker, came out of the operating room, telling them he had "run into something significant," Jay Putt said. "He said his aorta was not even connected."

A network of "collateral arteries" -- smaller blood vessels -- bridged the gap between two closed-off ends, doing their best to deliver oxygenated blood to Gavin's torso and legs.

About three in a million babies are born with the condition, Baker said. Untreated, they usually don't survive the first weeks of life. Putt's early survival boosted his later prognosis, Baker said last week. "Since he kind of proved his mettle early on, and his body adapted in a way that made him survive and be a soccer player and a hockey player, he probably wasn't so much at high risk of dying during sports or other exertion," he said.

'Did they fix it?'

Putt returned to the operating room on April 13. Surgeons went in through his back, slicing between his ribs and through layers of muscle to cut off the two unconnected ends of the artery and connect them with a 5-centimeter Dacron tube graft. The collateral arteries continued to pump Putt's blood, as they have for years.

Putt's first question after he emerged from anesthesia: "Did they fix it?"

They had fixed it.

Putt's physical condition served him during recovery. The surgery was on a Monday. He was off the narcotic pain medications by Wednesday and left the hospital with ibuprofen by Friday. He missed only a couple of weeks of school, and teachers kept him up on his assignments.

Over the past 16 years, about 10,000 students at Anoka and Coon Rapids high schools have had the health-class screenings that led to Putt's diagnosis through a program administered by Allina Hospitals and Clinics and funded by the hospital group and the local Lions Clubs. The program will be expanded to all five Anoka-Hennepin high schools next year. It won't be mandatory, as teacher Jeff Buerkle made it in Gavin's class, but will be strongly encouraged.

Grateful for support

The Putts said they've gotten through the couple of harrowing months with humor and with strong support from family, friends and the hockey and soccer communities at Anoka High School.

"I don't know how to describe it," Putt said. "It made it easier when people came down [to the hospital]. It gave me something to do and took my mind off of being in the hospital."

The Putts are looking to the future. Soccer practices start in June, and Putt is planning to be there.

His doctor and his parents are supportive.

"He's driving me crazy," his dad said with a laugh. "He's got to go back to doing something."

Said his mom: "It's important to get him back to doing something he loves to do."

The teen looked at his mom.

"Let's go," he said. "I'm ready."

Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409

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