Football star tackles his toughest opponent — a rare heart condition

Five months after a near-fatal cardiac arrest, a 17-year-old football start says he’s fit to hit the gridiron again.


Five days after suffering cardiac arrest following an October high school football game in New Jersey, 16-year-old Darrian Seaton-Tucker awoke from a medically-induced coma in a hospital room in Philadelphia.

Seven weeks after that he re-enrolled at St. Marcellinus Secondary School in Mississauga, still not sure not sure what caused his heart to stop beating.

Eventually specialists at Toronto’s Peter Munk Cardiac Centre diagnosed Seaton-Tucker with short QT syndrome (SQTS), a rare and mysterious genetic condition that can lead to sudden cardiac arrest. In late January they implanted a defibrillator in Seaton-Tucker’s chest, and five months after his near-fatal episode the standout defensive back has pronounced himself fit to return to the gridiron.

“I plan to go back to football,” says Seaton-Tucker, now 17. “It’s definitely in my future.”

But it’s not that simple when dealing with a heart condition researchers are still working to understand. Munk Centre cardiologist Dr. Michael Gollob says the condition affects one in 30,000 people, but because it has no symptoms people often don’t know they have it until they suffer cardiac arrest. Only five per cent of people with the condition will ever experience a cardiac event.

Unlocking the disease’s secrets has implications in sports, where latent heart ailments have shortened careers and claimed lives. Seaton-Tucker’s brush with death and subsequent recovery have prompted his mother, Leis Seaton, to establish the DST foundation. Through it she hopes to raise awareness about SQTS in the sports community, and raise funds to advance research.

“If we get the public educated and get the condition talked about, we can make it part of a regular heart checkup every single year,” Leis Seaton says. “If there is anything that’s underlying it will come to the surface.”

Over two years at St. Marcellinus, Seaton-Tucker set records as a hurdler, winning a Peel District title over 100 metres in 2014. But track was an afterthought. Football came first, and the NFL was the goal.

Seaton-Tucker played with his school in the fall and club teams in the spring and summer. In between he found time to play on a 7-on-7 team coached by former Argos cornerback Jordan Younger. At five-foot-11 and less than 170 pounds, Seaton-Tucker lacks NFL size, but compensates with fast feet, soft hands and desire.

“I play with a lot of emotion,” he says. “When you do something big, you know you’ve earned it.”

Seaton-Tucker transferred to the Canada Prep Academy in Spetember 2014, hoping to raise his profile among college football recruiters.

The tiny private boarding school in Welland, Ont., exists only to prepare elite high schoolers for post-secondary football careers. Students receive intensive training year-round and the team plays 11-on-11 football, their schedule loaded with road games against U.S. teams.

By last fall Seaton-Tucker had become a starter at cornerback, and though he doesn’t remember much about the Oct. 3 meeting against the Hun School in Princeton, N.J., he played the whole game.

Minutes after the final whistle, as his team huddled discussing the 14-9 loss, Seaton-Tucker collapsed and began convulsing.

“It was absolutely out of the blue,” says Patrick Fife, then the principal at Canada Prep. “He went down and people didn’t know if it was a joke, or what was going on. He wasn’t getting back up . . . It just escalated from there.”

Seaton-Tucker was in the throes of cardiac arrest. Someone in the stands called 911. Coaches from the Hun School performed CPR to keep Seaton-Tucker alive until paramedics arrived.

Seaton-Tucker was rushed to hospital in New Jersey, then airlifted to the Philadelphia Children’s Hospital. There, doctors induced a coma to stabilize his condition while they worked to figure out why a healthy 16-year-old with no history of heart trouble would collapse from cardiac arrest.

“It was like my kid was dying because he’s cold to the touch, hooked to all these wires and in a coma,” Leis Seaton says. “That was the hardest time.”

According to Gollob, the Munk Centre cardiologist who wound up treating Seaton-Tucker, that type of out-of-nowhere episode characterizes SQTS.

Gollob explains that SQTS refers to an abnormally short duration of the contraction and relaxation of the heart muscle. For most people, that interval lasts between 380 and 460 milliseconds, and 99.9 per cent of people fall within that range. The shorter the QT interval, the greater the risk of cardiac arrest, Gollob says.

Seaton-Tucker’s test revealed a QT interval of 340 milliseconds.

Forty milliseconds may not sound like much — an eyeblink takes 400 — but Gollob says it’s more than enough time to trigger heart trouble.

“It is a big difference at the level of the electrical system of the heart,” says Gollob, chair of the Centre of Excellence in Molecular Medicine at the Munk Centre. “They physiology of the heart is very strict on what normal should be. When you deviate from normal, the electrical properties of the heart may be vulnerable to sudden and dangerous arrhythmias. Precision is important.”

Researchers first identified SQTS in 2000, and have so far uncovered three genes that cause the disorder. Experts have also determined that exercise doesn’t affect the condition directly, though dehydration and electrolyte abnormalities could increase the risk of cardiac arrest.

A standard treatment is to implant a defibrillator to jolt the heart back into rhythm if another cardiac arrest occurs. Gollob says roughly 10 per cent of SQTS patients who suffer cardiac arrest will experience a second episode.

But questions about the condition still abound.

Gollob says in 80 per cent of SQTS cases the culprit gene remains unidentified. He is still awaiting results of Seaton-Tucker’s genetic screening.

Either way, Gollob says the condition doesn’t preclude a return to sports. A group at Yale University is compiling a database of active athletes with implanted defibrillators.

Gollob doesn’t approve of contact sports because collisions can damage the defibrillators. But, because recurrences aren’t exercise-induced, he says non-contact sports don’t heighten the risk.

“I do have many athletes that continue to participate, but it depends on the sport of your choice,” says Gollob, whose team drafted the first standard diagnostic criteria for SQTS. “Football is a concern, so we’ll see what happens with Darrian.”

Friday Gollob cleared Seaton-Tucker to resume vigorous exercise.

Just in time.

Seaton-Tucker left Canada Prep to return to St. Marcellinus, a north Mississauga high school with a powerful athletic program. Despite his hazy football future, he knows spring sports loom just beyond March break.

“I’m trying to get back to track at least,” he says.

CREDIT TO:   Staff Reporter, Published on Sat Mar 05 2016:

Football star tackles his toughest opponent — a rare heart condition

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