NAME: Jamie Harding
SPORT: Indoor Soccer
TEAM: Wichita Wings
POSITION: Forward, #16
INJURY: Slow heartbeat, requiring an implanted pacemaker
OTHER ATHLETES AFFECTED:
It is rare to see people as young as Harding need a pacemaker. The fact that he is a professional athlete makes his case rarer still.
Harding started his tour with the Wings on defense but switched over to forward two years ago. The 26-year-old is playing his fourth season with Wichita, which nearly lost him to the Toronto Thunder-Hawks in the 2000 NPSL Expansion Draft. Toronto had named Harding in the draft but did not include him in the team's lineup. So with a new status as a free agent, the Wings snapped him right back and signed him to a two-year deal. He has been using a pacemaker to help regulate his heartbeat for the last eight years. Before turning pro in 1997 as the Wings' fourth-round draft pick, he went to Newman University in Wichita and Wichita South High School.
HOW IT HAPPENED:
Harding has had a heart murmur since childhood. When a doctor listens to a patient's heart, the beating organ usually makes the classic lub-dub sound. But sometimes, extra sounds like swishing (murmurs) or clicks can be heard. Some murmurs are harmless. Others indicate problems with the way blood is flowing through the heart or the way the heart is shaped or acts. Harding recently told the Associated Press that his murmur would come and go when he was a child. When he passed out after a track meet in high school, a heart specialist found that his heart was beating only 20 times a minute -- that's way too low. Even a teen athlete in great condition would be expected to have a heart beat ranging from 50 to 80 beats per minute at rest. This slowness of the heartbeat is known medically as "bradycardia."
The heart supplies the body with blood, which carries nutrients and oxygen to all the cells in the body and takes away waste products so they can be eliminated. When a person is active, the body needs more nutrients and oxygen and produces more wastes that need to be carted off, compared to when the person is resting. Lots of activity means that the heart has to be able to keep up with the demands put on it. In Harding's case, his heart couldn't beat fast enough. So when medicine couldn't make the heart beat faster, doctors implanted a pacemaker in Harding's chest.
Under normal conditions, an electric signal flows through the heart and coordinates each heartbeat. The body regulates the number of signals per minute according to how much blood needs to be circulating -- literally setting the pace. Artificial pacemakers are battery-powered electronic devices that send the right number of signals to the heart to tell it to beat, according to the needs of the body.
But doctors have noted that even with a pacemaker, Harding is a special case. Usually, pacemakers can work the heart up to beating about 120 times a minute, which is still low for a professional athlete who has to run in quick bursts of speed. The Wings report that he is one of the fastest players in the soccer league.
WHAT'S INVOLVED WITH TREATMENT:
When implanting a pacemaker, a surgeon usually makes a small incision in the upper chest through which to place the device, which is usually about the size and shape of an egg, but a bit flatter. Wires connect the pacemaker to the heart and deliver the electronic signal. The body heals over the pacemaker and usually forms a small scar.
People with heart murmurs usually don't know their heart is making extra sounds, but a doctor can hear a heart murmur with a stethoscope. As in Harding's case, a doctor can also tell if the heart is beating too slowly. An electrocardiogram (or ECG) measures the electric pulse traveling through the heart and can record the number of heartbeats per minute graphically.
When doctors hear a murmur, they often want to determine what is causing it, to make sure it isn't a problem that needs to be corrected. A defective heart valve, which may let blood trickle backwards through the heart, is a common culprit. Often, doctors will do an echocardiogram, which uses sound waves and a computer to construct a picture of the heart's structures and shows how blood is flowing through them.
Harding's murmur came and went all through his childhood. Doctors didn't think he had a problem with his heart until he collapsed in high school. Then they learned his heart needed some help in keeping it up to speed.
Heart murmurs and slow heartbeats can't be prevented. Harding will probably have to keep using the pacemaker throughout his life, returning to his doctor regularly to make sure the device is functioning properly and the batteries are charged. Some people with heart murmurs also have to be careful about heart infections. They have to take antibiotics for a week before a dental visit, for example, to try to avoid germs traveling through the circulatory system and infecting the spot on the heart causing the extra noises.
Harding wears a T-shirt and a one-inch pad over the spot on his chest where his pacemaker is. He puts a hand over his heart for protection when blocking an opponent's penalty kick.
Harding is living (and playing) with his heart condition.
His long-term prognosis is good, although he will probably always need the pacemaker. As a forward, his team reports, Harding is racking up the best statistics of his career.