Sports Feature | 72 Beats: The Chibuzo Ikonte Story
By Halie Cook
Two and a half years. That’s how long it took for Chibuzo Ikonte to step back onto the Valencia High School basketball court as an athlete.
Ikonte’s story is a rare one. On September 25, 2013, the now 17-year-old, suffered a sudden cardiac arrest during basketball practice and lost consciousness.
“It was just a normal day of practice,” said Ikonte. “My team had just gone off the floor, and I was sitting on the sideline talking to a teammate and, mid-conversation, it happened in less than one second.”
The 6-foot-7 athlete had no pulse when sports medicine student, Colton Morgan, and two other students came to his aid.
“It was kind of a shock to me. I think it was a shock to all of us,” said Morgan. “I double-checked to see if I was right or not, because maybe I just didn’t feel the pulse or something like that. It (became) really evident that he was out.”
After compressions and the shock from an automatic external defibrillator, or AED, he came back to life.
According to multiple studies, approximately 100 student athletes die from sudden cardiac arrest every year. The condition kills one in every 100,000 athletes under age 35. Some of those victims include basketball stars such as Pete Maravich in 1988 and Hank Gathers in 1990.
“When I woke up, I just remember being on the ground in immense pain,” Ikonte said. “I was just stuck there and just feared for my life.”
Young, male, African-American basketball players are most at risk of suffering sudden cardiac arrest, according to a study from the NCAA. The study determined that 43,770 athletes die every year from sudden cardiac arrest, with basketball players most at risk.
Sudden cardiac arrest is not the same as having a heart attack. It happens when electrical signals controlling the heart’s pumping ability is basically short-circuited. The heart will beat dangerously fast or quiver and flutter instead, a condition known as ventricular fibrillation.
In recent years, basketball players ranging from high school athletes to professionals have suffered sudden cardiac arrest due to several underlying causes. Congenital abnormalities of the coronary arteries, or improperly positioned arteries, is what led to the death of Maravich. He was born with only one coronary artery instead of two. Other conditions include Marfan’s syndrome, which claimed the life of Gathers, an all-American basketball starter at Loyola Marymount University; as well as myocarditis, an inflammatory heart condition.
Ikonte was diagnosed with one of the most rare diseases, affecting only 0.02 percent to 0.05 percent of the population, but it is the leading cause of death in young athletes.
The family has no history of heart problems, with his father playing soccer and each of his three siblings being very active in sports. His two older brothers played everything from basketball to track-and-field in high school, and his younger sister, Chidinma Ikonte, is on the Valencia girls varsity basketball team.
After his surgery, Ikonte was outfitted with an ICD, or implantable cardioverter defibrillator, to help regulate his heartbeat. He continued going to school but did not touch a basketball again until three months after the incident.
“It was tough because the skill was still there, but I just got tired so fast,” said Ikonte. “At first my exercise would just be walking up and down the street.”
An ICD is the No. 1 treatment for cardiac arrest, said Tamar Avakanian, a nurse practitioner at Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital in Santa Clarita.
“What it is, when you see them on TV and you see them putting those big paddles on the chest and delivering that big shock, it’s the exact same thing in a much smaller device. It gets permanently implanted underneath the chest wall, underneath the chest muscle,” she said.
After implantation, there are electrical leads that come out of the side and go into the heart wall. These electrical leads continuously monitor the patient’s heart rate and will detect if it goes into an abnormal rhythm. Then it immediately delivers a shock.
Participating in sports with an ICD is not uncommon, though the American Heart Association and others warn against it.
For many passionate athletes, being diagnosed with a serious heart condition is devastating.
“You might have someone who is really talented and someone who is hoping and dreaming of a career in sports or college or whatever it may be, and for them – it could be devastating not to be able to participate in that sport,” said Avakanian.
Barring athletes with ICDs for play in the past has been attributed to intense physical activity falsely triggering electrical shocks. Even though the player might be fine, the device can misjudge a fast heartbeat for an abnormality. Also, exercise can worsen some heart conditions.
Cases like Ikonte’s have prompted a push in screening for heart conditions in young basketball players and other young athletes.
“Unfortunately for these types of conditions, there isn’t really anything you can do. The only thing you can do is really listen to your body,” said Avakanian.
Going through rigorous screenings and physicals doesn’t always keep athletes in the clear. Ikonte had collapsed about a year and a half before his major episode in 2013, but doctors never gave him a clear explanation for that episode.
The American Heart Association recommends a 12-step screening process for high school and college athletes. The screening includes a review of family history, a medical history review and a physical exam. According to a WebMD article, the exam includes questions about chest pain on exertion, unexplained fainting, a family history of premature death from heart disease and other relevant issues. The physical exam includes a check for heart murmurs, pulses, blood pressure and physical signs of Marfan syndrome.
The screenings are often not used, partly because many doctors don’t know they exist and because many players don’t want to report their symptoms for fear of losing playing time or scholarships.
“We, as clinicians, need to be sure we are asking the right questions,” Avakanian said. “We need to be getting as good a family history as possible. Young people don’t usually think about those things, but those are the only things we can do.”
With in-depth screenings, an electrocardiogram, or ECG, is sometimes used to ultrasound the heart. If the ECG detects symptoms, doctors can perform diagnostic studies, possibly saving a life.
The NCAA recently released a statement about its decision to develop guidelines to detect college athletes at risk of sudden cardiac death. The organization put aside $85,000 for a research grant to study 900 athletes at 11 Division I schools in 2012.
The recommendation automatically to screen all college athletes with an ECG will not be included in the NCAA’s guidelines. But ECGs are required when screening many professional athletes.
Although ECGs can detect preexisting conditions, they are not a fail-safe. Research from the American Heart Association shows that 1 in 10 people who suffer from HCM will have a normal ECG. Research also indicates there are not enough experts to interpret the ECGs – especially for those who are ethnically diverse and whose normal ECG patterns differ, said cardiologist Barry Maron in an American Heart Association article.
“We can’t do an ECG on every player,” said Avakanian. “Remember, it’s 1 out of 50,000 incidents, so it’s really hard to find. All we can do is try to screen as well as we can.”
“My recommendation to athletes is to listen to your body,” she said. “If you have any symptoms, report it.”
In addition to the uncertainty of ECG results, costs have discouraged high schools and colleges from requiring them for athletes. Average costs for a routine ECG are about $50, and $150 to $200 for an exercise stress test.
With advancements in testing and more screening being required for athletes, a heart condition doesn’t always mean athletes can’t play.
“More and more research studies … are showing that actually, you know what? These blanket recommendations to not participate, they’re maybe too restrictive, and maybe we need to look at things a little bit more closely,” said Avakanian.
Ikonte never stopped trying to get back onto the court.
While awaiting a full recovery, or as close to it as possible, he maintained a 4.3 grade point average and planned to study economics in college. During his junior year, in addition to his studies and exercising outside of school, he was allowed to participate lightly in practice with the team and take the bench during games as a student assistant.
“I just thank God for it, because it built character,” Ikonte said. “It reminded me not to take anything for granted, and it just helped me persevere.”
Fast-forward to the night of Jan. 19, 2016. In a packed gymnasium with his family in the stands – in the same place where he collapsed years earlier – Ikonte made his way onto the court.
In his first play of the game, he had a turnover.
“I was like, ‘Oh, shoot, here we go.’ But then I bounced back,” he said.
Over the course of the game, he scored a team high of 24 points in 21 minutes.
“It was amazing,” Ikonte said after the game. “I don’t even know the plays. I only had one practice. I only knew one play, and that was it.”
The varsity basketball coach crouched nervously on the sidelines throughout the game to make sure Ikonte wasn’t overexerting himself.
“I was very nervous,” said Coach Chad Phillips. “I really wanted to watch his minutes, and there were a couple of times that he wanted out of the game, so we got him out of the game. We had to burn the timeouts, but ultimately it’s a lot more about his condition.”
Ikonte led Valencia to a 67-65 victory and went on to help his team win its first two league games before losing to crosstown rival Hart High on Jan. 26.
“All the glory to God,” Ikonte said. “I’m so thankful.”
Ikonte graduated from Valencia High School in June and plans to go on to Northwestern University to pursue a career in Economics and Statistics. He also hopes to walk on to the school’s basketball team.(c) 2016 SCVTV