The kid’s got heart

This Chico State health major is the only transplant recipient to play college lacrosse

Brian Whitlow

Brian Whitlow

Photo by Tom Angel

Beating the odds: Heart transplant recipients have about a 50-50 chance of surviving for 10 years after their operations. The average cost of a heart transplant is $148,000. The longest anyone has ever lived after a heart transplant is 24 years.

Out by one of Chico State University’s practice fields, the smell of unwashed socks rises out of a score of gym bags to mingle with the more palatable scent of freshly cut grass. A layer of crushed peanut shells mixes with the field-side gravel pockmarked with the unmistakable imprints of cleated shoes.

On the field, about 40 guys are falling all over themselves trying to scoop up a barely visible ball with things that look like aluminum butterfly nets.

On the goal end of the field, one player, masked and bulked out with heavy pads, stands defiantly before a 6-by-6-foot netted cage, shouting hoarse, cryptic commands at the top of his lungs:

“Center, center—back to the hole! Watch the cuts!”

The players scramble over the ball, and a pile-up ensues. The ball breaks free, and the goalie yells, “Come on defense,” as a team member recovers it and sprints like mad toward the other side of the field with three opposing players in hot pursuit.

Watching a team scrimmage makes it apparent that many, if not all, of the players on Chico State’s lacrosse team have that intangible quality that some coaches call “heart.” But consider this: One of these players doesn’t have the same heart he was born with. Think you can spot him? If you didn’t know it, you’d probably never be able to tell that Brian Whitlow, 25, who plays goalie, has lived for 10 years as a heart transplant recipient.

“I’ve got someone else’s heart,” Brian says, making no bones about his condition. “There are days when I put on my helmet and just feel really grateful that I even have the opportunity [to play].”

Far from being shy about his operation, Whitlow tells everybody who’ll listen to him all about it. He’s been the subject of numerous newspaper and magazine articles, has appeared on a morning TV talk show and uses every opportunity to thrust his story and his achievements into the limelight.

“I’m just out there shamelessly promoting myself,” he says jokingly, acknowledging that he has received a lot more attention than most organ transplant patients get.

But there is a deeper purpose to Brian’s self-promotion that goes beyond the thrill of seeing his name in the paper. He says he will do whatever it takes to raise public awareness about his dual passions, the Chico State club sport of lacrosse and the cause of organ donation.

“I recognized early on that the sport of lacrosse is one of the greatest vehicles to promote transplantation,” he said. “People see you out there and think that if you play a very demanding sport like lacrosse, you must be healthy.”

Brian, who grew up in Marin County but moved to Gridley a few years ago, received his heart transplant at Stanford Hospital in Palo Alto when he was just 15 years old. Suffering from cardiomyopathy, a congenital disease that attacks the muscles of the heart, he waited for more than a year before a donor heart was found, given by the family of a Sacramento boy who had been hit by a train. He was lucky to get it. Today, there are more than 4,000 people in the U.S. on the list for a donor heart, many of whom will die waiting.

By the time of his operation, Brian’s own heart had swollen to the size of a large grapefruit, its ventricles deformed and pushing up against his lungs. His doctors told him after the operation that, without the procedure, he would have had only had a few months to live.

As it turned out, he almost died anyway.

Whitlow (third from left) takes to the field with the rest of the Chico State lacrosse team.

Photo by Tom Angel

“I rejected for like a year and a half,” he said, referring to how his immune cells attacked the new heart. Rejection is fairly common in heart transplants, but the amount of time it took for Brian’s body to recognize the new heart as a benevolent guest instead of a foreign invader was excruciating for a kid who had always been active, playing Little League and trying to keep up with his healthier big brother.

But Brian wasn’t the type to let a little thing like a heart transplant get in his way. Within a few months before and after the operation, he was out on the basketball court, trying as hard as he could to keep playing despite the pain and exhaustion.

“It wasn’t like I was in a wheelchair staring out the window,” he said. “I did all the things a typical teenager would do, even things I wasn’t really supposed to.”

With a debilitating regimen of drugs and radiation therapy (he still has to take drugs to suppress his immune system), Brian was finally able to get his body to form a truce with the new heart. But it was a major struggle to get back to a physical state that would allow him to play sports competitively.

After trying his hand at tennis, basketball and soccer, Brian found that he had the basic skills to play, but often his body would come up short in endurance. Even today, it takes him twice as long as his fellow teammates to warm up for a game because the transplant destroyed nerves in his chest that are responsible for sending hormones like adrenaline to his heart.

When he first started playing lacrosse, it was as a midfielder, but the position didn’t exactly work out. By the time he managed to sprint to his position on the field, he would already be too tired to play effectively. So when the goaltender’s spot opened up, he jumped at the chance.

“I just wanted to be part of the team so bad. Playing goalie was a natural fit for me.”

The goalie position in lacrosse may be less physical, but it requires a huge amount of mental concentration and a field general’s sense of strategy. Brian found out early on that the best way to keep the ball out of the goal is to keep it as far away from “the crease"—the area in front of the goal box from which most goals are scored—as possible. To that end, Brian barks out instructions to his defensive players, orchestrating their movements from his static position on the edge of the field.

For anyone who doesn’t know, lacrosse, far from being a sissy game, has a violence quotient equivalent to that of hockey or rugby. It’s played with a solid rubber ball about the size of a racquetball that players are supposed to scoop up in a net and fling, at speeds up to 70 mph, into the opposing team’s goal.

Not only are players allowed to whack each other with the stick part of their nets, they frequently charge after the ball with such abandon that one of them inevitably falls over and is trampled by the other players.

Back when Brian was a midfielder, he was involved in such a collision.

“I got laid out,” he said. “What they always tell you in lacrosse is to never put your head down. That day, I put my head down and got hit hard. That was my first big hit, and it was right around when they had first heard about my transplant. I think everyone was on eggshells for a little bit. Then when they found out I was OK, it was like, ‘All right.’ Before it had been, you know, ‘Watch out for Whitlow, he’s kind of fragile.’ Now they know I can take a hit like anyone else. That was great.”

Taking a beating on the field isn’t the only way Brian is working toward helping transplant recipients. He is also working on a degree in health administration, and someday he hopes to work with kids at a teaching hospital like Stanford.

But the incident shows Brian’s philosophy in a nutshell. While some people might think getting knocked unconscious is a bad thing, for Brian it’s a milestone in his recovery and a metaphor for the struggles that he and other people with health problems can overcome. Telling people about that struggle, he reasons, is one way to inspire himself and others to overcome obstacles in life.

Not only that, but Brian hopes that more people will choose to donate their organs, which means more than putting a sticker on one’s driver’s license—many people don’t know that the choice to donate rests not with the individual, but with his or her next of kin. In the case of Brian’s donor, whose family allowed the donation of all their son’s organs, one teen’s death meant a chance for seven other young people to live.

“I have a unique story that allows me to promote transplantation," Brian said. "There’s such a shortage of organs. It’s not like shopping—you either do [the operation] or you die. If people read about me, then for a couple of minutes maybe they’ll think about it, maybe they’ll talk to their families about it. That’s a success right there."