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14th September 2020

Keeping your heart in the game

When Dan Gay found out that he had a faulty heart valve, he faced the biggest challenge of his life: giving up basketball.

The professional basketball player was competing at the World Championships when he collapsed on the court. “They took me to the hospital and said: ‘You need to have surgery because your heart valve is not functioning properly’,” he remembers. An echocardiogram (a type of ultrasound scan that takes images of the heart) revealed that he had severe aortic stenosis, a narrowing of the aortic valve opening which was restricting the blood flow through his heart. The valve would need to be replaced with an artificial one.

“What they offered me was the mechanical valve. I would have to have a blood check every two weeks or so. I travel a lot and they were saying ‘no, you have to stay where there’s a centre where you can have this blood test’,” he explains. The procedure would involve surgery to open the middle of Dan’s chest and breastbone to gain access to his heart. Dan decided not to have the surgery and to “fight through it”.

He carried on playing basketball but soon realised that he would have to stop when he continued feeling faint and dizzy. “It was just devastating to think that I couldn’t play basketball,” he comments. People told him not to worry about basketball and just to focus on his life. His response? “There is no life without basketball.”

Dan became less and less able to do the physical activities that he could easily do before, like climbing the four flights of stairs to his apartment. “I felt the fatigue. You try and hide it but people who are around you and close to you can feel it and see it.” His life changed when he was introduced to a cardiologist who was using a less invasive type of surgical procedure and a new resilient type of tissue valve that reduced calcium build-up and lasted longer.

Instead of the conventional open-heart surgery, the procedure could be done via a small incision of just 5cm and by gaining access to Dan’s heart by manoeuvring in between his ribs, with a quick recovery time. For an active person like Dan, this seemed like the right choice. He said: “I can’t go on without playing basketball. Let’s do it.”

He had the surgery and was home five days later, feeling great. Now he’s even shooting hoops again. “I’m back to my usual life and am getting ready to play at the over-55 championships.”