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Heartbeat of a Champion

By August 31, 2016Media
CREDIT: COREY CUSICK | REPRINTED AND EDITED FROM THE TIMES-GEORGIAN

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CARROLLTON RESIDENT JUSTIN PARK IS ONE OF THE TOP-PERFORMING PROFESSIONAL TRIATHLETES IN THE COUNTRY. AFTER BEING DIAGNOSED WITH A CAREER-ENDING HEART CONDITION AND GOING INTO CORPORATE LAW, PARK DECIDED TO FOLLOW HIS DREAM IN AN INSPIRATIONAL JOURNEY OF DEFYING THE ODDS.

The lifelong dream was dead in his sights.

Each lap represented one step closer to the destination. Down the stretch he came. Victory literally felt within his grip. As he rounded what proved to be one of the final turns of his amazing prep career — everything went dark.

And in the blink of an eye, it was all gone.

Not only were Justin Park’s Division I dreams shattered, his life teetered toward the brink of disaster on that fateful day during his junior year of high school.

The multi-sport star was legging out the sixth of eight laps in the 3,200-meter run at a regional track meet outside of Greensboro, North Carolina, when his body completely shut down.

Park collapsed violently, and chaos ensued.

“It was in lap six, but I have no recollection of it, whatsoever,” recalls Park.

Medical personnel and meet officials quickly scrambled to Park’s side, but there were several tense moments as he laid motionless. At this point, he was there in body only. His mind and incredible competitive spirit were nowhere to be found.

Even after temporarily coming to, everything remained a complete fog.

“My vision was poor and blurry and all that kind of stuff. I don’t actually remember the event itself,” Park added.

Fortunately, Park survived an experience that, for many people who share his affliction, can result in death.

Even so, the months — and years — that followed were anything but soothing for a competitor who had dedicated the majority of his life up until that point to athletics.

Park spent his childhood and teenage years as a top-level swimmer and distance runner, but his true passion was soccer. He was all set to suit up for Duke University in the fall, but that goal hit the proverbial crossbar to a life-altering medical condition upon being diagnosed with Long QT Syndrome.

Essentially, it meant a future in athletics was no longer an option.

But for Justin Park — now a 35-year-old professional triathlete who calls Carrollton home — it marked the start of an inspirational journey of defying the odds and following his dreams, fueled by the heartbeat of a champion.

DIAGNOSING THE DISORDER

One of the more difficult aspects to Park’s condition, first and foremost, became discovering what it actually was that caused him to collapse not only once, but twice between the end of his junior and start to his senior years of high school.

Following that original scare, Park chalked it up to being an anomaly. After all, this is a guy who had competed in numerous athletic events since he was a small child. So, initially, he wasn’t restricted from strenuous activities.

But when a similar incident occurred just a few months later during cross country season, that’s when his family realized something wasn’t right.

“Not only did I have the issue of realizing that it’s a real issue and not a one-time thing, but then also I didn’t qualify for the state championship because I didn’t finish the race,” Park said.

That would soon become the least of his worries. Park endured a batter y of tests, visiting a specialist twice a month until they could put a finger on the root to his blackouts.

“It was one of those things where a negative was just as good as a positive. They were just trying to narrow down what the issue was. They went from everything from potential tumors to all sorts of stuff. I feel like that’s an age where you should sort of feel invincible and want to be invincible, so it was disturbing to have all that go on at that time,” Park said. “All the fun stuff that probably a high school kid doesn’t need to go through.”

After undergoing a myriad of MRIs and stress tests to determine if the condition was brain-related, Park eventually had a cardiac catheterization performed at Duke University. From there, he was referred to a specialist in Salt Lake City, Utah.

And that’s when Dr. Edward Vincent ultimately made the diagnosis of Long QT Syndrome in the summer prior to Park’s freshman year of college.

A disorder of the heart’s electrical activity, Long QT Syndrome can cause sudden and uncontrollable arrhythmias in response to exercise or stress. The fast, chaotic heartbeats typically trigger a fainting spell or seizure, which can become fatal.

I REALLY STRUGGLED FOR PROBABLY THE FIRST TWO, TWO AND A HALF YEARS OF COLLEGE OF TRYING TO SETTLE INTO A LIFE THAT WASN’T WHAT I THOUGHT I WAS GOING TO BE DOING.

“There’s an electrical impulse that causes the heart to beat and then it has to repolarize itself to beat again,” Park explained. “For people with Long QT Syndrome, that sort of segment of the heartbeat takes a little longer to happen, which at super high heart rates creates a problem. You essentially run into a situation where the heart can’t keep up with the demand of the body, and that’s where you get an event such as I had.”

Long QT Syndrome is actually a genetic disorder and Park quickly discovered that not only did he suffer from the condition, but also his mother and one of his three sisters upon further testing. Looking back, Park quickly realized he was lucky to be alive.

“I was in decent enough shape that once I collapsed and stopped, my heart slowed down enough to not cause an issue. But for many people, it’s an event that causes death,” Park said. “And, unfortunately, the condition itself, a lot of people don’t know they have it until it’s too late because it’s not something that affects you on an everyday basis.”

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