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Too healthy for surgery, too sick to play

UMass guard Jaylen Brantley is still coming to terms with his heart condition

  • UMass guard Jaylen Brantley, right, watches from the bench earlier this season. The Maryland transfer was hoping to contribute this season, but a heart condition has sidelined the Springfield native. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • UMass guard Jaylen Brantley was diagnosed during the preseason with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. The heart condition has sidelined the Springfield native, who is holding out hopes that his career is not over. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • UMass guard Jaylen Brantley was diagnosed during the preseason with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. The heart condition has sidelined the Springfield native, who is holding out hopes that his career is not over. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • UMass guard Jaylen Brantley was diagnosed during the preseason with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. The heart condition has sidelined the Springfield native, who is holding out hope that his career is not over. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • UMass guard Jaylen Brantley was diagnosed during the preseason with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. The heart condition has sidelined the Springfield native, who is holding out hopes that his career is not over. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • UMass guard Jaylen Brantley, third from left, was diagnosed during the preseason with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. The heart condition has sidelined the Springfield native, who is holding out hopes that his career is not over. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY



@MattVautourDHG
Wednesday, November 22, 2017

AMHERST — Jaylen Brantley doesn’t look sick.

On the UMass bench, the guard from Springfield doesn’t look any different from the four players sitting out the year under NCAA transfer rules. They all look athletic and healthy in their black warm-up suits. Brantley is no different.

He doesn’t feel sick either. If a doctor cleared him to play basketball again, Brantley would be ready to get back on the court and resume what he hoped would be a fairy-tale homecoming after transferring from Maryland.

But in all likelihood, Brantley’s career is over. He has hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a heart condition discovered during a preseason exam that makes it too dangerous to keep playing.

“It’s the craziest thing ever,” Brantley said shaking his head. “I can do everything. I can run. I can jump. I just can’t play basketball. It’s devastating.”

Routine interrupted

Brantley didn’t think much of it when he was told when and where to show up for an electrocardiogram (EKG). College athletes, especially freshmen and transfers, are barraged with events, meetings and appointments scheduled one after another.

Be one place for practice, another for a physical, then a photo shoot, a meeting with an advisor, an EKG, study hall, media interviews. They go where they’re told. It’s all part of the routine and are rarely cause for pause.

Brantley had never had an EKG and many Division I schools, including Maryland, don’t require them. He had no reason to suspect he wouldn’t pass it. He was 24 and coming off a season where he played all 33 games at Maryland. He felt healthy.

UMass used to test just basketball and football players. Statistically, African-American males are the most susceptible to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy and players in both of those sports are regularly in situations where their heart rates rise. But the school now tests every freshman and transfer athlete joining the department. Team doctor Pierre Rouzier and a small staff administer the tests.

Any athlete whose EKG falls outside of normal are referred to Michael Willers, a cardiologist in Holyoke. If his findings match with Rouzier’s, an MRI is scheduled either at Baystate Medical Center or in Boston depending on appointment availability.

False positives aren’t rare and an MRI can clear them up. Brantley thought he’d miss a week and then things would go back to normal.

But the MRI and an appointment with Dr. Aaron Baggish, a cardiologist at Mass General Hospital who works with the New England Patriots and Boston Bruins among others, confirmed the diagnosis. It was hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, the same condition that Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Joe Kennedy, Atlanta Hawks center Jason Collier and former Boston Bruins forward Sergei Zholtok all died suddenly of in the middle of their careers. It is believed that Hank Gathers, the Loyola Marymount star who collapsed and died during a 1990 college basketball game, also suffered from the condition.

According to the American College of Sports Medicine:

“People with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy have a large and thick heart muscle. It sounds like a good thing; however, the thickened heart muscle is so large that it decreases the cavity size of the heart, which means the heart holds and pumps less blood. The thickened muscle can also cause obstruction to the flow of blood as it is pumped out of the heart. The large muscle literally gets in the way and blocks the blood from flowing out of the heart to the rest of the body. When the muscle gets large enough, it functions poorly, and can start to quiver in ventricular fibrillation, which is the cause of sudden death.”

Support systems

The speed at which Brantley went from thinking he was healthy to done for his career was staggering.

“They told me that and I was kind of devastated. It was really shocking. ‘What do you mean I can’t play anymore?’” he said. “Everything happened so fast. One week they told me I couldn’t play for a week and the next week they told me I couldn’t play ever again.”

The Springfield native had friends and family buying season tickets, thrilled he’d finally be close enough to see. Suddenly, he and his mother Angela Cayode were giving them bad news.

“For everyone to see every game was going to be phenomenal. We couldn’t wait,” Cayode said. “It’s like living in a nightmare that I can’t imagine we’re not waking up from. It’s devastating.”

The severity of the condition is determined by the thickness of the heart wall. Brantley’s case appears comparatively mild. He’s at risk of cardiac arrest if his heart rate exceeds a certain point that would most likely be reached in competition. Barring that, he doesn’t take medication or have his diet restricted in any way. His day-to-day existence is unchanged except for being unable to play basketball.

Had his condition been worse, he would have had surgery to attach a defibrillator to his heart. Having that defibrillator drastically reduces the risks, allowing someone who has one, to resume playing. Despite having the same condition, King McClure is able to average 23.8 minutes as Baylor’s starting two guard because he has a defibrillator.

But Brantley is too healthy to get one. The ability to play basketball isn’t considered medically necessary enough to put a patient through heart surgery and the potential complications of having an electrical devise constantly inside them. Brantley’s heart is too sick to play and too healthy to be fixed. The seeming absurdity of that constantly whirs through his mind.

“Sometimes I think ‘I wish I was sicker so I can play.’ I’ve thought that a million times,” he said. “I’m too healthy to get it, but I’m too at risk to play without it. Since I’m healthy they can’t do anything about it. It’s very heartbreaking.”

Being close to home made it easier. Brantley is especially close with his mother and has considerable family support throughout Springfield, but on campus he was just getting acclimated. Because he was finishing his bachelor’s degree over the summer, he didn’t arrive on campus until August and was just getting to know most of his new teammates and coaches. They were rapidly thrust into the role of being a support system for someone they barely knew.

“Nobody knows how to handle somebody going through something like this,” Brantley said. “They’re all just trying to be as supportive as they can. I appreciate the way they brought me into their family.”

Chris Baldwin shares Brantley’s Springfield roots and has known him longer than anyone else on the team.

“It’s tough seeing something he’s done all his life being taken away so suddenly,” Baldwin said. “The support from the guys here is genuine. Everybody here has had open arms. That’s one thing you need.”

Sophomore guard Luwane Pipkins agreed.

“He’s a great teammate on and off the court. He’s a good person. We have to have keep him comfortable and keep him in high spirits,” Pipkins said. “It’s heartbreaking to see that happen to a great dude.”

Coach Matt McCall has made Brantley a student assistant coach, giving him a head start on what Brantley hopes will be his eventual career. He’s watching how the coaches develop game plans, run drills and break down video.

“We’re here to support him,” McCall said. “It’s bigger than basketball. He has a huge future. It may open up another door and we’re here to support him through whichever door he chooses to walk through.”

Brantley appreciated the support.

“(McCall) has been helping me the whole way. He’ll help me as much as he can. The whole coaching staff has been really supportive. If I keep watching what they do I’ll pick up good habits for when I one day become a coach.”

Brantley isn’t ready for that day to be now. He admittedly hasn’t made peace with walking away yet. He’s looking into getting a second opinion in hopes of resuming his playing career. At the same time, he’s focused on getting his master’s degree and working toward his post-basketball career.

He sometimes talks about playing in the past tense.

“The hardest part is I know I can’t come back. As good as I do feel, I feel just like I did last year or the year before,” he said. “My body doesn’t feel any different. It’s tough.”

But just a few minutes later, he speaks hopefully about playing again.

“I’ve been trying to see if there still could be ways for me to still play. I’m still trying to seek second opinions. I don’t think my basketball career is completely over,” he said.

The words come out quietly and a little hesitantly like stepping on uncertain ground. “We’ll see what happens.”

Unknown future

Brantley and his mom often think about what might have happened if he never had the EKG.

Without it , he might be in a starring role just up the road from his hometown, rewarding all the friends and family that bought season tickets to support him. If only he could go back to the time before he knew about his condition.

“That thought goes through my head every day,” he said. “If I didn’t get it, I’d still be playing.”

The thought repeatedly haunting his mother is much darker.

What if Jaylen had stayed at Maryland where they don’t do EKGs? What if she’d been watching on TV and saw her only son collapse.

“The thought of me being here and him being there and something happening, I can’t take it,” Cayode said.

Even the hypothetical is tough to think about as her voice reveals an audible shudder.

“I wouldn’t have been able to live through something happening to Jaylen,” she said. “I would not have been able to breathe again.”

In her work as a home health care nurse, she’s encountered families who have lost loved ones to this condition. Had Jaylen made any one of a number of different decisions — staying at Maryland, transferring to a different school, beginning his professional career — he could have been a victim of it. Her faith prevents her from thinking this is all a lucky coincidence.

“I feel like UMass has saved his life. I know people personally who have lost their children to this disease. I still have the opportunity to hug my son and I have UMass to thank for that,” she said. “I’m devastated for Jay. But he’s still going to be a success in life. He’s still going to have a great life. This is just another road bump. He’s going to overcome it.”

But it’s that nightmare that makes her cautious about his interest in a second opinion. Even if they find several doctors who are convinced he’ll be fine, the fears will always nag from the back of her mind.

“I’m comfortable with what the doctors have said. He’s not. He’s a baller at heart,” she said. “He wants a second opinion and we’re going to support him on that. He’s in limbo. He’s not convinced this is exactly what I have.”

Brantley doesn’t know what his future holds, but he’s confident in his ability to make the ordeal strengthen him.

“I’ve fought through a lot of adversity. I feel like this is just another stepping stone in what I need to accomplish,” he said. “I feel like I can get through any situation that’s thrown at me. Every situation has made me stronger. Every path I’ve been through makes me realize everything happens for a reason.”

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage