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Pumped Up for Success : Heart Procedure Gives USC's Reggie Perry a New Lease on Sports Life

June 13, 1993|ELLIOTT ALMOND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The hit hurt.

It was a solid, crunching blow to the chest that came as swift and sudden as lightning. Reggie Perry's angular body buckled. His heart pounded like a drum machine. And although spring passing drills had only begun, he felt an uncompromising and unyielding fatigue.

Despite the signs, Perry thought nothing was wrong.

"Like the idiot that I am, I didn't realize what it was," he said.

Perry, a senior safety on USC's football team, momentarily forgot he suffered from Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, a rare heart disease that can cause usually benign arrhythmias, or fast heartbeats.

The only other time Perry suffered such symptoms was two years before while playing in a pickup basketball game at USC. After being elbowed in the chest, he felt faint. Perry rested for about 10 minutes, then returned without incident. It was not until much later he learned from a physician the blow triggered an arrhythmia.

Although April's episode was not life-threatening, Mark Lurie, a USC team physician, told Perry he had to correct the problem before playing again.

Perry was eager to take care of it. He knew all about Hank Gathers' fatal collapse three years ago in a Loyola Marymount basketball game. Although Gathers died from cardiomyopathy, a heart disorder that is much more serious than Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, comparisons are inevitable.

"Any time you're talking about your heart, it's got to be on your mind somewhere," Perry said. "I didn't want to run down the field and collapse."

Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome is an electrocardiographic abnormality that affects one in a thousand, said David S. Cannom, a Los Angeles heart specialist. The condition is caused by an extra muscle bridge that short-circuits the heart's electrical system.

As recently as three years ago, the problem in most individuals had to be corrected by open heart surgery or medications that control heart rhythms. But the advent of a new procedure called catheter ablation has cured thousands such as Perry. The breakthrough technology is one of the latest developments in combatting certain heart diseases, cardiologists say.

Athletes suffering from Wolff-Parkinson-White have a special interest in the procedure. Patients suffering from the syndrome often restrict physical activity to avoid violent, and dangerous, heart rhythms, said Fred Mirotti, a pioneer of the catheter ablation.

As many five in a thousand die each year after experiencing an arrhythmia related to Wolff-Parkinson-White. Although drugs can control the rhythms, the side effects cause sluggishness, and leave many incapable of high-level athletic performance. Furthermore, heart surgery could end, if not dramatically interrupt, an athlete's career.

Perry, 22, did not learn of his condition until he entered USC four years ago. The condition was diagnosed by a routine electrocardiogram during his freshman physical. He was referred to one of the country's leading specialists for further evaluation; the physician told him to continue playing because he did not have telltale signs that pointed to danger.

But once that changed, Perry was referred to Cannom at the Hospital of the Good Samaritan in Los Angeles.

The most difficult segment of the outpatient procedure is pinpointing the fiber that causes the disorder, said Kris Parker, a nurse who specializes in cardiac care. An X-ray-like video is used to monitor the electrical flow of the heart until the tiny culprit is identified.

Once it is located, a catheter delivers an electrical burn that destroys the fiber without damaging the heart. The procedure takes between 2 1/2 and nine hours.

Mirotti, director of Clinical Electrophysiology at the University of Michigan Medical Center, said the first successful ablations were done in 1983 with an electrical shock. But the procedure was not easily controlled, and was considered dangerous. Only a select few could handle it. By 1989, researchers revolutionized the field with the use of radio frequency energy, which emits a gentle burn.

After the procedure, patients take an aspirin a day for three months to prevent possible clotting inside the heart chambers. Otherwise, they are cured.

Perry entered the hospital on a Thursday and was discharged by the weekend. He said he could have practiced that Monday if Coach John Robinson had scheduled one.

On his first day back, the trainers told him to take it easy.

"But before I knew it, I was doing full-contact drills and running like nothing had happened," Perry said.

Except for a sore neck where one catheter was inserted, Perry was surprised at how good he felt. Megan Holliday, a Trojan swimmer, was not as awe-struck.

The USC athletes had met three days before Perry's operation. Holliday also suffered from Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, and had the tiny fiber removed. She competed a week after her second operation, and had no further problems. Perry thought if she could do it, so could he.

"We laughed and said we'd compare scars later on," Perry said.

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