A Routine Sports Physical Turns Into a Life-Saving Event for One California Runner

“You hear those cases where kids are playing football and drop dead. My son could have been one of those kids, had we not had this sports physical testing done and discovered his heart condition.”

The Merritt family was no stranger to Muir Orthopaedic Specialists. The mom, Dara, has been seen for a shoulder injury, the oldest son, Romen, has been seen for an ankle and wrist injury, and the youngest son, Gabriel, has been seen for a knee injury. This is common for a highly active household.

Gabriel’s sports physical with Muir Ortho discovered his heart condition | Muir Orthopaedic Specialists | Walnut Creek, CA


After these treatments, Dara would receive informational emails from the practice. One of those happened to be on the Pass To Play event, the annual sports physical event that Muir Ortho holds to get student athletes prepared for the next school year.

“This event stood out to us because it seemed like a more extensive sports physical than what is available through our regular primary care,” says Dara. “I was really interested in the cardiac screening because my older son, Romen, who plays basketball, had complained about his heart racing when he played.”

Dara signed up both boys for the event.

A sports physical family affair

The day of the physical the whole family went to the event. Romen was on the basketball team, and Gabriel was planning on trying out for track and hoping to make the varsity team as a freshman. Both boys went in for their appointments and mom and dad were in the waiting room.

“I was pleasantly surprised by how long it took. It was not just a five minute in and out. They were very thorough,” says Dara.

Romen had finished his sports physical and returned to his parents with no problems. They were waiting for Gabriel and wondering why his was taking so much longer and finally he came out. But he was not done. He needed to grab one of his parents to talk to the doctor.

Dara went back to talk to the doctor who performed the EKG as part of the cardiac test. He explained that Gabriel’s test was abnormal and he needed to be seen by a cardiologist right away.

“The first thing I thought of was my sports life, and how big this could possibly change how I went about my life,” says Gabriel. “Sports have always been a big part of my life. I was very scared of what I could lose and the sacrifices that would need to be made.”

Gabriel was not the only one worried. Dara had fears of her own. Looking back on that day she says, “As a mother I was concerned about what this could be. I thought we were such a healthy family and no one that we know of has any heart conditions. I was thinking maybe it was a fluke or a misread test. But I took it very seriously and we made an appointment to see a pediatric cardiologist right away.”

Cardiologist diagnoses Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome

Gabriel was able to get an appointment with the cardiologist and learned that he had Wolff-Parkinson-White (WPW) syndrome. This condition is caused by an extra electrical pathway between the heart’s upper and lower chambers causing a rapid heartbeat, which puts him at risk for sudden death syndrome.

This is a rare condition occurring in about 1 to 3 of every 1,000 people. Men are at higher risk for this heart abnormality than are women.

One treatment for WPW is an ablation, a procedure to create scar tissue to block the pathway of the extra current. They went ahead and scheduled this surgery, but they had to wait a month. During this time, which were Gabriel’s first weeks of high school, he was put on restricted activity and had to wear a bulky heart monitor.

“It was pretty uncomfortable and was in the way. I had many people walk by me and ask what was under my shirt and I had to explain to them what it was. But I got through it because I knew I needed it for my health,” says Gabriel.

After a week and a half, he was able to stop wearing the monitor.

“Right before his procedure he got really sick and we had to postpone the surgery. He was sick for over a month, and to have the surgery he had to be symptom free for over a month,” says Dara.

Gabriel was moved to independent study at home to reduce the number of sick teens he was around in school.

Surgery time … finally – then on to the state track meet

In October Gabriel was healthy enough, and they were able to perform the surgery.

“It was not open-heart surgery, they did not have to cut me open or anything,” says Gabriel.

An ablation procedure involves locating the open pathway and cauterizing (burning) it closed. To access the heart, doctors use catheters (flexible tubes) that are threaded through blood vessels in the groin and the main artery in the neck to the heart.

After the ablation surgery, Gabriel had a week to recover. Then they performed multiple tests on his heart again to make sure that the WPW was fixed.

“They ran one test and then said he was cured, and the doctor was like, yeah, you can go run a marathon if you want,” says Dara. “Then for him as a freshman in high school to go on to make the varsity track team, then make it all the way to the state track meet on the 4 x 100 meter team. Can you believe six months ago where we were to right now? It was a pretty big deal.”

This was something that Gabriel had been working on for a long time, and luckily his heart did not stop him.

“I started running track in kindergarten and now made it to my freshman year of high school. I felt a lot of pressure on myself to perform well, make a name for myself, as well as do a good job for my team,” says Gabriel. “Then all of a sudden being stopped due to an interference with my heart was scary. I was worried I was not going to be able to run my first year. The way everything went down was just perfectly timed and I thank God for it every day.”

Going forward the only thing the cardiologist recommends is that during Gabriel’s annual physical he gets an EKG. This is to catch the very small percentage of people with WPW who have the misfortune of the pathway opening back up.

He went back in 2019 for the Pass To Play event and plans to return again in the future.