Men’s Swimming: A true Cardiac Cat: Andrew Seitz returns to the pool after mystery heart condition

March 4, 2014

January 2013, Iowa City, Iowa

Junior Andrew Seitz just wasn’t himself.

Actually, the then-sophomore hadn’t been himself for almost two years, and he knew it. His times at Northwestern’s swimming meet against Iowa late in January weren’t of the caliber he posted in high school when he was competing in U.S. Senior and Junior National competitions.

There was one lead to what the problem might be: his heart. Seitz had been experiencing irregular heartbeats for the past two years while racing and even felt dizzy at times. He thought that could be the root of why he was struggling so much in the pool.

But he didn’t know what his condition was. Nobody did. Not even his doctors. So Seitz wore a heart monitor for the first time after he completed his final event of the Iowa meet to record his heart rate for his doctors in hopes that they could figure out the problem.

The good news that night: The doctors were able to get results right away.

The bad news: The initial prognosis was not promising.

“Are you okay?” the doctor said on the phone that night to Seitz. “We’re really worried about you.”

August 2011, Stanford, Calif.

All the hard work was finally paying off for Seitz.

The Pleasanton, Calif., native was bound for the Senior and Junior Nationals meets at Stanford just a few weeks before he would head to Evanston to start school and training at NU.

He had worked tirelessly at swimming since age 10. Thanks to guidance from his mother, Christine Seitz, who swam in college, he was putting up times that put him in the top 10 in the country in the 400-yard IM for his age.

“I always had a smile on my face every time he raced, regardless of whether he won or lost because you would always see the drive,” Christine Seitz said.

Multiple prestigious schools recruited Seitz, including Harvard and Yale. But when Christine Seitz saw her son exit the plane from Chicago wearing a purple NU sweatshirt, she knew he had already made up his mind.

“I told other college swimmers’ parents, ‘I hope your kid walks off the plane and has the look that Andrew did,’” she said. “He just knew.”

It was a picture perfect scenario for the Seitz family, with the dream of a successful college swimming career so close to becoming a reality.

But while she was watching Seitz compete at the Senior Nationals event, Christine Seitz got a call from his coach that sent chills down her spine.

“You never want to get a phone call from the head coach saying they’ve cleared you to come down to the pool deck,” Christine Seitz said. “Because parents aren’t allowed on the pool deck.”

It was especially odd for Christine Seitz because she had just watched her son have a good swim. Nothing about his race struck her as being unusual.

When she finally got down to the pool deck, however, she found out Seitz would have to be admitted to the emergency room.

“Stanford brought in their best,” she said. “They ran every test that people were saying take weeks to get scheduled.”

The initial tests showed no structural damage to his heart, and the irregular heartbeats Seitz claimed he had been feeling intermittently — and only in the pool — since Nationals went away. Everyone was so confident he was okay he swam in a relay event later that night.

The following week he competed in Junior Nationals, but something just wasn’t the same.

“He couldn’t hit the times,” Christine Seitz said.

The irregular heartbeat came back only while he was racing. Initially, Seitz and his family attributed his slower times to fatigue because he had just raced in Senior Nationals the week before.

But that wasn’t the issue. It was his heart.

“I think we were all pretty naive,” she admitted.

September 2012, Evanston

Seitz’s heart wasn’t getting any better.

During his freshman year at NU, the rapid, irregular heartbeat, which he would later find out reached up to 280 beats per minute, would come every now and then while he was racing. He tried running on a treadmill to see if he could get that same irregular heartbeat, but it only came when he was in the pool.

“I took a tremendous step back,” Seitz said. “I wasn’t seeing any success in my swimming. I was having a lot of struggles finishing my races. I was swimming times that I was swimming my freshman year of high school.”

Seitz spent his entire freshman year just trying to be normal and ignoring the unknown issue. He didn’t even tell his parents he was still struggling because he didn’t want to worry them. But his heart got worse at the beginning of sophomore year, and he eventually had to let coach Jarod Schroeder in on the secret. 

“It started happening after every single time I’d race,” Seitz said. “It started happening after practice. I would have to tell Jarod that I needed to sit against the wall for a few seconds to calm down my heart.”

The irregular heartbeats had a dramatic effect on Seitz’s racing. His body failed him when he needed it the most during a competition.

“If you were swimming a 200-yard event, you’d swim 100 and feel alright,” he said. “You’d hit the 150 and all of a sudden, you’d push off on the fifth 25 of 8 and you’d feel one missed beat. You just didn’t feel right. You’d feel your entire body rush with lactic acid. Just everything, arms and legs, stopped.”

It even started getting to Seitz mentally, as the problem spread from the boundaries of the pool deck to his everyday life. Seitz was playing a simple game of broomball with his teammates when he felt his heart rate begin to pick up dramatically.

“Something’s wrong,” Seitz said. “I need to see the doctors.”

January 2013, Chicago

Dr. Alexandru Chicos, a cardiac electrophysiologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, got the results of Seitz’s heart monitor. He had the swimmer’s parents fly in from California to discuss what he found.

Initially, Chicos thought Seitz had one of two frightening disorders: Arrhythmogenic Right Ventricular Dysplasia (ARVD), a condition where the muscle of the right ventricle is replaced by fat and fibrosis causing abnormal heart rhythms, or Catecholaminergic polymorphic ventricular tachycardia (CPVT), a condition where irregular heartbeats occur when stress or physical activity levels increase.

ARVD, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine, is a leading cause of sudden death among young athletes. One out of every 5,000 individuals is diagnosed with the condition. If CPVT, which is estimated to be found in 1 in 10,000 people, goes untreated, it can also cause sudden death.

Neither ARVD nor CPVT has a cure.

“They’re both silent killers,” Seitz said. “Most of the time, families will find out their kid had them after they die. Usually you don’t get a second chance. Your heart will just stop.”

The doctor said he was 95 percent sure Seitz, who had no family history of heart issues, had one of the two genetic conditions. If Chicos was able to confirm his suspicions, Seitz would have to undergo open-heart surgery and have a defibrillator put in.

All the bad news from Chicos made the Seitz family come up with a new nickname for the doctor: Dr. Doom and Gloom.

“Every time he talked to me it was doom and gloom,” Christine Seitz said. “Every time it got worse.”

Chicos had already consulted with other doctors all over the world about Seitz’s unique case. None of Seitz’s earlier tests had come up with a positive result for any condition, and when Chicos told the other doctors about Seitz’s conditions, they asked why he didn’t already have a defibrillator. But after careful consideration, Chicos stressed patience and wanted to try one more test before he sent Seitz to surgery.

Chicos attempted to trigger  Seitz’s heart problem in a controlled environment in an electrophysiology study. He put Seitz under general anesthesia and injected a catheter into his femoral artery or vein, according to the swimmer, and wove it all the way up into his heart. The process took an hour and a half, after which Chicos woke Seitz. Then, he controlled the swimmer’s heart rate, bringing it up to 200 beats per minute, and shot an electric signal through the catheter to try and knock his heart out of sync.

“And you’re awake,” Seitz said. “They have the medicine that makes you a little foggy. But I still remember it very vividly. It’s weird.”

This process essentially threw Seitz into ventricular tachycardia (VT), a condition that makes the heart beat so fast and irregularly it could eventually stop the heart from pumping blood. He had to sign numerous waivers because there was a chance that his heart could stop and doctors would have to bring him back to life.

After the procedure was over, more questions arose. Chicos thought he could rule out CPVT and ARVD, but he still wasn’t sure what Seitz had. The swimmer kept hearing the same devastating “95 percent” predictions from the doctor.

“There’s a 95 percent chance that you’re going to have a significantly reduced lifestyle,” he remembered hearing. “There’s a 95 percent chance of open heart surgery. There’s a chance it isn’t one of those conditions and it’s something we can fix through medicine.”

But there was one 100 percent guarantee from Chicos.

“You’re done swimming,” he told Seitz. “You’re done competing. You’re done with everything.”

The tests continued as Chicos tried to solve the Seitz puzzle. The swimmer had an MRI done on his heart to rule out any structural damage and a signal-averaged electrocardiogram to evaluate the electrical conduction of the heart. The next crucial step was a genetic test to see if any conditions showed up there, but it would take almost three months to learn the results.

“Basically for a span of three months, I was down at Northwestern Memorial Hospital pretty much once a week doing tests,” Seitz said.

Seitz, who was now on beta-blockers, didn’t know what to do with the extra 25 hours each week that was usually occupied by the sport he loved. So he got an internship on campus to fill his time.

“I tried handling it by not necessarily ignoring it, but playing down the severity of the issue,” Seitz said. “It was kind of a coping mechanism to handle such a big change.”

April 2013, Chicago 

After months of waiting, Seitz finally got the phone call he had been waiting for about his genetic test.

“The results came back negative,” he said. “That was huge. It eliminates a lot of stress.”

The negative genetic test eliminated what Chicos originally thought was the problem, CPVT or ARVD. But the answer to Seitz’s heart problem wasn’t any clearer.

An intense competitor, Seitz wanted to continue to fight to find the solution, and Chicos was there to give Seitz a fighting chance. So he set up a catheter ablation for Seitz, a procedure where Chicos could send radio frequency waves to a certain area of Seitz’s heart and the waves would destroy the targeted cells.

Chicos went back into Seitz’s heart, an area all too familiar to the doctor, with a catheter and started burning groups of mutated cells. After he was done eliminating the bad cells, Chicos brought Seitz’s heart rate up to 290 beats per minute. He wanted to see if he could throw Seitz back into VT after stopping his heart.

Christine Seitz and Andrew’s father, Cameron Seitz, were sitting in a private waiting room, desperate for good news. When Chicos walked in, it was an odd sight for Christine Seitz.

Dr. Doom and Gloom was smiling, something she had never seen him do.

“Rarely in my career do I have the opportunity to change someone’s life forever, and today I did,” Chicos said.

Chicos’ and Seitz’s patience had paid off. Seitz did not slip into VT during the catheter ablation. His heart was healthy again.

Seitz’s case had become famous around the hospital. The swimmer said nurses were running around screaming, “It’s gone!” Doctors in the hospital didn’t believe Chicos. They knew Seitz’s circumstances and the seemingly insurmountable odds he faced. But after months of worrying if and when his heart would stop, Seitz was finally okay.

He hasn’t had symptoms since, though an official diagnosis was never made.

But the real marvel for the swimmer was after 10 days of recovering from the procedure, he was cleared to return to the pool.

“It’s nothing short of a miracle that I’m swimming now and have a normal life,” Seitz said.

May 2013, Evanston

Just because Seitz was cleared of VT didn’t mean he would suddenly return to posting his old times. He had spent four months out of the pool, and for a swimmer, that’s an eternity.

But he got back to work and started training again, or at least tried to.

At the time, Schroeder didn’t know Seitz was cleared to swim so he kept him out of the pool, delaying his return to the water.

“They didn’t tell our trainer he could get back in the pool,” Schroeder said. “I wouldn’t let him get in unless our trainer said it was okay. I didn’t want to be the guy that jeopardizes his future.”

So Seitz, itching to get back in, had to sit on the side of the pool as he watched his friends and teammates practice.

Once the word finally got around to the trainer, Seitz got back in the pool and started on the road back to hopefully regaining his old form.

A few weeks after training, Seitz’s teammates wanted to honor his return to the pool, so they named him Trainer of the Week, a team honor that goes to the swimmer who worked the hardest and improved the most during the week at practice.

“It was a big deal to see him coming back,” senior Chase Stephens said. “He deserved it. He was training to overcome a big obstacle. No matter what we as a team are going through, we always back each other up.”

March 2014, Ann Arbor, Mich. 

Seitz continued to overcome the mental handicap of no longer worrying about his heart problem during his junior year. One of the steps toward moving on included running a half marathon over the summer “just for fun.” It’s an incredible task, considering Seitz doesn’t even consider himself a runner.

This season’s TYR Invitational in November was the big turning point for Seitz. He noticed after the meet that his heart never crossed his mind when he was competing and that his times were dropping.

At the Big Ten Championships over the weekend, Seitz really showed that his training is paying off. He posted career and season best times in the 400-yard IM and 200-yard butterfly, respectively.

“From where I came from, it was pretty awesome to just be able to compete at the meet. And then when I was at the meet, I was swimming some of my best times of college.”

In the end, it may not be about returning to his old self. Instead, Seitz is focusing on creating a new path.

“The easiest way to get back is to get rid of all expectations,” he said. “It doesn’t matter where you were in the past, it matters where you are now.”

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Twitter: @John_Paschall