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A lucky survivor.

Byline: Randi Bjornstad The Register-Guard

Every time 61-year-old Charles Mestrich Jr. hears about another young athlete who suddenly collapsed and died, and the autopsy reveals hypertrophic cardio myopathy, he has two thoughts: One, if only the youngster had known; and, two, that could have happened to me.

But Mestrich, who lives in Eugene, was lucky. His hypertrophic cardiomyopathy - a disease in which the heart muscle becomes abnormally thickened, or enlarged, and an ailment that led to the death of Oregon State University football player Fred Thompson earlier this month - was diagnosed before disaster happened. And Mestrich has lived 15 years since then, with the help of an "implantable cardioverter defibrillator" residing under the skin just above his heart.

Unlike a pacemaker, which keeps the heart beating at the proper rate, the larger defibrillator just sits there waiting until the heart needs an electrical jolt to get it beating again in case of a life-threatening disturbance to the heart's rhythm. However, the defibrillator also contains a pacemaker, so it can quicken or slow the heartbeat if necessary.

Mestrich had no idea that his heart was an accident waiting to happen until he was 45 years old, working in a lumber mill in his hometown of Astoria.

It was in early 1996 when "all of a sudden the power went off to the shaker-blower-chipper," he recalled. "I ran back to the boss's office to tell him, and it felt like something was coming down on my body, and I lost consciousness for 30 seconds or so. The next thing I knew, I was on the ground."

He didn't go to the doctor immediately - he knows now that he should have - but when he did, "they ran all these tests, and they told me I had an enlarged heart. The doctor told me about the basketball star Hank Gathers. He died of the same thing."

Eric "Hank" Gathers played his first year of college basketball at the University of Southern California before transferring in the wake of a coaching shake-up at USC to Loyola Marymount, a Catholic university also in Los Angeles.

He sat out a year following the transfer, according to NCAA rules, but in 1987-88, Gathers led his team in both scoring and rebounding and was named most valuable player in the West Coast Conference tournament. The next season, he became the second player in the history of NCAA Division I to lead the nation in scoring and rebounding. During his senior year, it was assumed he would be among the top picks in the NBA lottery.

But on Dec. 9, 1989, Gathers collapsed while shooting a free throw during a game against UC Santa Barbara. At that point, he was diagnosed with an abnormal heartbeat and given medication. He believed the medication suppressed his playing ability, so he apparently at least cut back his dosage and perhaps neglected to take it altogether on game days.

On March 4, 1990, he suddenly collapsed again, during a West Coast Conference quarterfinal game in Los Angeles against the University of Portland, and died almost immediately. He was 23. The autopsy showed the cause was hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.

An autopsy performed on the body of OSU's Thompson, who collapsed and died on Dec. 7 during a recreational basketball game on the Oregon State campus, revealed the same condition. Announcing the cause of death, state Medical Examiner Karen Gunson said the ailment "is a major cause of death in young athletes who seem completely healthy but die during heavy exercise."

Eugene cardiologist Fran Munkenbeck, who practices at the Oregon Heart and Vascular Institute at Sacred Heart Medical Center at RiverBend, at the time described the condition as a "heart muscle (that) is too thick. It's formed abnormally, and when you're playing sports, everything is going in your system very rapidly, and that's what puts you at a setup for arrhythmias and sudden death."

Young athletes - or others who develop symptoms during strenuous activity - should immediately seek medical attention if they develop chest pain, dizziness or fainting, shortness of breath or a strong sensation of feeling the heart beat, the doctors advised.

Knowing about Gathers, Thompson and all the other young people who died suddenly from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy makes Mestrich feel exceptionally lucky.

After his "attack," he decided to quit his job. "I called the mill and said, 'I'm not coming back to work. I'm afraid I might die on the job,' " he said.

He believes in his case, the condition is genetic, and he has made sure his children have been tested.

"My grandfather died of heart failure at 71, and my dad told me later that he had an enlarged heart," Mestrich said. His father, still living in Astoria, is 86.

Mestrich controlled his condition with medication until 2004, when he began to experience blackouts and other alarming symptoms. His first defibrillator was inserted at Oregon Health & Science University and lasted 6 1/2 years. The second should last at least as long, he said.

"I know I'm lucky. This condition doesn't need to kill you, but you need to know you have it," Mestrich said. "Parents should watch their kids really closely for symptoms if they're really active, especially if they're athletes."

When he received his second defibrillator, Mestrich asked the surgeon if he could keep the first one as a souvenir.

"I took it to my 40th high school reunion," he said. "People said, 'What's that?', and I said, 'This is a defibrillator. This is what has been keeping my alive so I could be here with you today.' "
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Title Annotation:Health and Fitness
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Dec 26, 2011
Words:926
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