Heart condition doesn't stop basketball enthusiast

Wednesday, July 29, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT
J.T. Jarnegan makes a layup during his playing days at Central Methodist University in Fayette.

COLUMBIA — When J.T. Jarnegan steps onto a basketball court, he has something in the back of his mind — a point in his life where he was unsure if he would be able to play again. 

Hidden underneath his jersey are two five-inch-long dark brown scars. One runs from his left shoulder blade over his shoulder and ends a few centimeters above his pectoral muscle. The other runs across his abdomen. The scars serve as a painful reminder of a heart attack that almost cost Jarnegan his life.

Jarnegan, 35, is set to play in the Show-Me State Games' men's basketball tournament this weekend with a team from St. Louis that will be making its 10th appearance in the games.  

Jarnegan described the day of his heart attack in a phone call from his home in Barnhart.

It was March of 1995, and Jarnegan had just finished his junior season on the men's basketball team at Central Methodist University in Fayette.  The team won the Heart of America Conference and made it to the Sweet 16 of the Division I NAIA tournament. Jarnegan was named to the all-conference team that year.

After the season was over, he made a trip to Salina, Kan., to visit friends at Kansas Wesleyan University. He and his friends were playing in a pick-up basketball game in the Kansas Wesleyan gym. They had been playing for about an hour. Jarnegan's teammate set a screen for him. He ran around the defender, caught a bounce pass, leaped and slammed the ball into the basket.

Afterward, he started running to the other side of the court when suddenly everything went black. Jarnegan collapsed and landed face first on the gym floor.

"I felt fine before the game started," Jarnegan said. "I do not remember falling. I was out before I hit the ground."

John Bishop, one of Jarnegan's teammates at Central Methodist, had come along on the visit. Bishop recalled by phone glancing back and seeing Jarnegan laying on the court. 

"I think there is something wrong with him," a spectator shouted.

Bishop raced over to Jarnegan to see what was wrong. 

"J.T. wake up," Bishop yelled.

Jarnegan's whole body began to shake uncontrollably and vomit ran down the side of his cheek, a sign of a seizure. 

After the seizure, Bishop said he pressed his fingers up against Jarnegan's neck and discovered he did not have a pulse. Bishop and another spectator alternated performing CPR on Jarnegan until the paramedics arrived.

"I remember shaking as bad as J.T when the paramedics arrived," Bishop said. "I was scared to death. I didn't know what was going on."

Paramedics later told Jarnegan his heart was racing at 300 beats per minute (60 to 100 beats is normal), and the paramedics were afraid it would explode before reaching a hospital. Jarnegan said a doctor told him paramedics had to shock him three times to reduce his heart rate. At the hospital, doctors used medications to return his heart rate to normal.

About four or five hours later, Jarnegan woke up to darkness.  A side effect of the medications left him blind for the next 12 hours. Jarnegan said sweat was dripping down the side of his face and his hands were cold and clammy. He wiped his face with the bed sheet and asked a doctor what had happened. 

He was told he had suffered ventricular fibrillation, a condition where the heart beats so fast that it fails to pump any blood through the arteries.

"He told me he was not sure what caused the heart attack, and there was a good chance that it could happen again," Jarnegan said. "He told me I would never be able to play again."

Jarnegan said tears began to well up in his eyes and drip to the sheet. 

"Basketball is something I loved to do since I was five, and I was not ready to give it up," Jarnegan said. "I wanted to go home and get a second opinion."

Jarnegan said basketball served as his only outlet from work and school.  The success his college team was having also drove him to find a way to overcome his condition and return to the court for his senior season.

Two days later, Jarnegan was transferred to a hospital in his hometown of Temple, Texas. Cardiologist Larry D. Price performed heart surgery, inserting a defibrillator underneath Jarnegan's abdominal muscles. 

Price, who specializes in cardiac pacing and electrophysiology said cardiac arrest causes about 300,000 deaths per year in the United States. He also said ventricular fibrillation is the most common type of heart attack.

"Most people don't survive ventricular fibrillation," Price said. "If he did not receive CPR, he would have died."

Jarnegan said Price told him inserting the defibrillator was a low-risk procedure that would allow him to continue playing basketball. In case he has another heart attack, the device sends continuous electrical shocks to his heart until it starts beating at a normal rate.

According to Jarnegan, the device is a 4-inch thick silver box that is similar to a pacemaker. Wires run from the box behind his rib cage, through his shoulder, to his heart.

After six weeks recuperating, Jarnegan returned to Fayette to gradually work his way back to shape. He played his senior year, gaining a spot in the starting lineup and graduating in 1996.

Since the heart defibrillator was inserted, it has shocked him twice. The device has to be replaced every seven years.

The first time he was shocked, Jarnegan said he was playing in a tournament called "Hoop It Up" in Texas. He felt a sudden jolt to his chest and thought someone had hit him.  His knees buckled and he collapsed to the floor. He had to be helped off the court by his teammates, and he was taken to a hospital for treatment.

"It feels like you just got kicked in a stomach by a horse," Jarnegan said.

Despite the pain he receives from the shocks, Jarnegan said his passion for the sport propels him back onto the basketball court.

"If I get shocked again, it might as well happen when I'm doing something I love to do," Jarnegan said.

After graduating from college, Jarnegan moved to St. Louis and played in adult basketball leagues. He has played in the Show-Me State Games every year since the the surgery and will be making his 12th appearance at the games on Friday.

 "He told me a lot of people said he couldn't play again, but he said he proved them all wrong," Bishop said.

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Dan Kallas July 29, 2009 | 4:02 p.m.


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