Cameron Smith can’t explain why he’s so lucky or how his fate turned a global pandemic into a blessing that likely saved his life and certainly changed it forever.
“I feel great,” the 23-year-old Vikings linebacker said Wednesday, three months after successful open heart surgery repaired a birth defect that would have gone undetected if not for COVID-19 testing when the Vikings reported for training camp in July.
“I haven’t hit a low point. I haven’t struggled. Sometimes I feel that’s not fair of me to say because I know some people struggle with open heart surgery. But for me, I just look at God and I say, ‘Thank you. I appreciate You giving me this sign.’ ”
Smith’s initial COVID-19 test came back presumptive positive, not definitive enough to trigger protocol for a cardiac work-up. But his other test for COVID-19 antibodies came back positive, meaning he had contracted the virus at some point and would require a closer look at his heart.
“The antibodies [blood] test was optional, and Cameron took it,” said Vikings head athletic trainer Eric Sugarman. “Pretty remarkable that sometimes things happen for a reason. It probably saved his life.”
When Smith’s EKG didn’t sound quite right, the Vikings sent him for an echocardiogram, which is an ultrasound of the heart. An MRI a couple of days later confirmed the echocardiogram’s discovery of a bicuspid aortic valve defect.
“When Cameron called me with the news, for some reason, I looked down at the phone and said, ‘I don’t feel good about this call,’ ” said John Smith, Cameron’s father, a retired UPS driver living in Sacramento, Calif. “He said, ‘They say I need open heart surgery.’ I didn’t hear the rest of it because I was totally just hit by a truck at first.”
Brotherly love from Philly
Jon Dorenbos was the Eagles long snapper for 11 seasons. He started in 2006 — after Sugarman left the Eagles to follow Brad Childress to Minnesota — and retired before the 2017 season after suffering an aortic aneurysm.
“I never even met Jon, but when Cameron’s story hit the news, Jon called me,” Sugarman said. “Jon had a very similar condition and wanted to reach out to Cam because he had such a successful surgery. Jon did so much research on the top heart surgeons in the country for this condition. He just felt obligated to share that information.”
Yet another unexpected twist. One that introduced Smith to Philadelphia heart surgeon Dr. Joseph Bavaria, one of the country’s leading aortic valve specialists.
“The first doctor I talked to in Minnesota, they were talking to me about maybe never playing football again,” Smith said. “That really hit me in a weird way.
“But [Bavaria] really had my interest in mind and kind of took it upon himself as a challenge, saying, ‘We’re going to get you back on the field. You’re going to be better than ever. You’re going to be fixed.’ ”
John Smith said even Bavaria was surprised to see how damaged the valve was when he opened up Cam’s chest and got his first look at the enlarged heart.
“It was severe,” John said. “But Dr. Bavaria said he stepped back and remembered Cameron’s wishes about playing football again. Then he said, ‘OK, let’s do it.’
“Afterward, he said, ‘I can’t give myself an A, but it was pretty close to it. A B-plus, A-minus job.’ ”
More good fortune.
“Cameron got lucky in that surgery,” Sugarman said. “Instead of a valve replacement, where they use some animal’s valve, he was able to get a valve repair. So he still has his own organs. You don’t have to worry about rejections. He chose a great surgeon, got a great repair and is working remarkably hard and seeing great results.”
It would be ‘sudden death’
At one point during his consults with surgeons, Smith wondered aloud what would happen if he “chose to just monitor the situation” without surgery.
It wasn’t a plausible discussion with a man whose heart was about three times the size of a normal one.
“They said there’s no monitoring something like that,” Smith said. “It wouldn’t be, ‘Oh, man, get me to the hospital!’ It would be sudden death. There would be no saving you.”
Smith’s thoughts went directly to a workout he had in California with Vikings quarterback Jake Browning, a friend he first met as youth football rivals.
“My heart rate was 212 during the warmup part,” Smith said. “I had never seen it that high, but I’ve felt that feeling before. It felt like my whole chest was pounding, like my heart was completely as wide as my chest and it was going, ‘Boom! Boom!’ ”
His father wonders why this condition went undetected for so long for an athlete who has had countless physicals, including one at the NFL scouting combine.
Sugarman said an echocardiogram is ordered for players at the combine only if the EKG comes back abnormal. Smith’s EKG at the 2019 combine was normal, Sugarman said.
“A million things have flashed before my eyes,” John Smith said. “I have a friend who lost his son. His son went to sleep one night and never woke up. That could have been Cam. We’re so lucky.”
The road to recovery
Smith’s surgery took four hours in Philadelphia the morning of Aug. 24. He spent the next six days in the hospital. Unable to travel long distance, he spent the following two weeks with his father; his mother, Suzy, and his older sister, Sammi, in a rented beach house in Ocean City, N.J.
By the time Smith got back to Minnesota, it had been about two months since he had lifted a weight or run a step.
“I got down to 210 pounds, the lightest I’ve been since my freshman year of high school,” said Smith, who is normally about 235 pounds. “I’m back up to about 223 now. Just pacing myself and building up for when January comes and I’m training full-go for the 2021 season, going gung-ho and as motivated as ever.”
Through September, Smith was allowed to lift only 15 pounds. Upper-body exercises were off limits, but he started cardio work.
In October, he was allowed to lift 25 pounds. Earlier this month, he was given unrestricted clearance in the weight room and is slowly building back all the muscle he lost.
“I haven’t benched yet,” he said. “More band exercises and cable stuff with machines.”
Smith’s chest is still numb from the incision, not to mention his sternum being cracked open. But that will go away in time.
“I’m not scared because they said my chest bone is even stronger because they used fish wire to close it back up,” Smith said. “And, actually, I’m in a much better place than I was when I tore my ACL. I started at the bottom with my knee. With my heart, all I’ve been waiting on is for bone to heal.”
An inspiration to all
The Vikings were struggling during their 1-5 start when coach Mike Zimmer pulled Smith up in front of the team.
“I said here’s a guy that comes to practice every single day,” Zimmer said. “He’s got the script out. He’s with the linebackers. He’s watching, asking questions. Other than having heart surgery, he’s been here every day because he loves football.
“And I said, ‘If we play with Cam’s heart, we’ll win a lot of games.’ ”
Teammates have noticed.
“He’s just a great example,” linebacker Eric Wilson said. “Never giving up and defying any obstacle in your way.”
Browning added, “Cam’s also the one good thing that happened because of COVID.”
Smith said he expects to be ready for OTAs next spring. He can’t wait to see how his body reacts to finally getting normal oxygen and blood flow.
“[Bavaria] was very vocal with me that I am going to be better than I ever have been,” Smith said. “He said, ‘There is no question you can play again because I fixed you.’ He looked me in the face and said, ‘You were damaged and I have fixed you. You are now a normal person.’ That kind of sealed everything I needed in my head.”
The surgery changed Smith mentally as well.
“I don’t feel like I get angry anymore,” he said. “I don’t feel like things put me on the edge anymore. It’s all just like, ‘Life’s too short for this.’ Life is supposed to be fun. It’s about doing things and creating memories, not just talking about it. Life is supposed to be enjoyed with the people you love. So that’s where I’ve been lately.”
Smith said this the day before Thanksgiving, via Zoom from his dad’s house in Sacramento. John, 61, was happy to hear it, and not opposed to his son’s return to football.
“You want to see your kids reach their goals and dreams because if you don’t have those, you really don’t have anything,” John said. “In our minds, we want healthy kids. Bottom line. But when I hear him talk about football, he says, ‘Dad, this isn’t the end of my story. I still have a story to tell.’ And I just said, ‘Then go for it.’ ”