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Dodgers' Kenley Jansen has a healthy outlook

Reliever has recovered fully from surgery in October for an irregular heartbeat and is enjoying his return to the mound and being the father of a newborn girl.

April 08, 2013|By Dylan Hernandez, Los Angeles Times
  • Dodgers pitcher Kenley Jansen closes out the ninth inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates in August of last season.
Dodgers pitcher Kenley Jansen closes out the ninth inning against the Pittsburgh… (Justin K. Aller / Getty Images )

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SAN DIEGO — Kenley Jansen should be able to attend his newborn daughter's graduation and wedding ceremonies. No longer does the Dodgers' hard-throwing setup man have to worry that playing baseball could cost him his life. His heart now functions normally.

Nearly six months ago, Jansen underwent a cardiac operation that scared him out of his usual laid-back persona.

"It's finally fixed," Jansen, 25, said with a smile.

Heading into the Dodgers' series opener against the San Diego Padres at Petco Park on Tuesday, Jansen has pitched three times. He hasn't given up a hit or a run.

"It was a fairly successful operation to begin with, but it was very successful on him," said Stan Conte, the Dodgers' head of medical services. "His conditioning has improved, which, I think, is a direct reflection of the surgery. Now, he has a normal heart."

Jansen was hospitalized in each of the two previous seasons because of atrial fibrillation, a common form of an irregular heartbeat. Both times, he had to take blood-thinning medication intended to prevent a clot or a stroke. Because he could have bled to death if struck by a baseball, Jansen was put on the 15-day disabled list each time he was administered the medication.

"When I got an a-fib, my heart rate was like 200," Jansen said. "It's crazy. It's beating quick and out of rhythm, and you get tired. That's the scary part, that you're tired. You feel like you're running all the time."

Atrial fibrillation has been associated with congestive heart failure and is believed to increase the risk of stroke. With the condition returning last year, Jansen opted for surgery. In the procedure, which was performed Oct. 23, the part of his heart that was causing it to beat irregularly was identified and burned.

The night before his surgery, Jansen was restless.

"I had like two hours of sleep," he said. "You're so anxious. I felt like I was going to be OK, but you're a human being. You're always going to be anxious, be nervous. I was in bed, but I kept rolling over. That morning when I got there, I was tired already because I didn't sleep."

Jansen was accompanied to the hospital by his fiancee, Candace Cotton.

"I love you," he told her. "Everything's going to be all right."

Not before he endured a scare.

The operation wasn't an open-heart procedure, as doctors accessed his heart through his groin. A camera went into his left side, a scope in his right.

When Jansen woke up, one of the doctors was pressing down on his lower body.

"The doctor was putting pressure on my groin because I was bleeding out," Jansen said. "My blood was too thin. I was coughing. They told me to stop coughing because if I kept coughing, the blood would have kept coming out."

Jansen lost consciousness. The next time he woke up, he was in a recovery room.

Returning to competitive athletics required him to overcome significant mental obstacles. Instead of returning to his home country of Curacao, Jansen remained in Los Angeles.

"It hurt a little bit, walking the first two weeks," he said. "I couldn't even climb the stairs."

He was also warned against lifting anything heavy.

In November, he met with Dodgers trainer Sue Falsone, who asked him to run on a treadmill.

"That was a funny feeling," he said. "You still feel pain in your chest. You feel pain in your groin. That was the scary part."

Gradually, the pain disappeared. So did the fear.

By the time Jansen reported to spring training, he felt like a new man. When he ran, he noticed he didn't fatigue as quickly.

"The problem he had was atrial fibrillation, which is the fluttering of one part of the heart," Conte said. "That makes the pumping of blood through the heart inefficient. Blood wasn't pumping as effectively as it could have, so there were definitely times oxygen wouldn't get to the tissue as well as it could have."

His health scare behind him, Jansen can focus on other things.

Such as being a father.

Cotton gave birth last month to the couple's first child, Natalina Hana Jansen.

"It gets you to a different gear, a different level," Jansen said of fatherhood.

Jansen has become an important part of the Dodgers' bullpen in only a few years as a pitcher. He was a strong-armed but light-hitting catcher in the Dodgers' farm system until 2009, when the team decided to convert him.

Although he was often dominant — he averaged a major league-record 16.1 strikeouts per nine innings in 2011 — his inexperience made him prone to occasional fits of inconsistency.

That happened last season, when Jansen noticed his signature cut fastball was in the low 90s.

"I wasn't in a straight line," he said. "I was crossing my body a lot."

He found the solution because of a pitch he added: a sinker. The new pitch made him more conscious of his body alignment. Soon, his cutter was back in the mid-90s.

"I'm good now, I'm ready," Jansen said. "The heart is fine. The arm is fine. Everything is fine."

dylan.hernandez@latimes.com

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