The Team Rules, OK!

Kayla Burt

Kayla Burt, Portland, OR - 20 at time of event, 2002

It was New Years Eve, and her basketball team was staying over to celebrate. But Kayla never saw the festivities. She had freshly brushed teeth, and a brush with death. Loree Payne, her best friend, watched Kayla fall face down between the bed and the TV—they all thought it was a joke. But it wasn’t. None of her teammates knew CPR, but they’d seen it on TV. How hard could it be? Someone called 9-1-1, and luckily the operator gave instructions on the correct technique. The EMTs were there within minutes. Kayla is proud that she lived in Seattle. That city is the best in the country for cardiac arrest survival, chiefly because of their Medic One program.

Kayla was a sophomore from Arlington, beginning a promising basketball career as starting guard in the University of Washington’s Huskies. That all ended on New Years day. Naturally the All-American college basketball star was fit and healthy. She was now, however, diagnosed with Long QT syndrome, a congenital heart problem that can cause unstable heart rhythms.

Kayla did return to Washington's bench—as a student coach—although she accepted that her playing career was over. But a trip to the Mayo clinic for further tests revealed she did not have Long QT and no cardiomyopathy either. In fact they found nothing at all wrong with her heart. “How come I can’t play basketball then?” she asked immediately. Kayla’s competitive instincts were driving her back to the court. There were risks she was told, so after another year of tests and consultations, the University asked her to accept the legal responsibility of her increased risk, and Kayla returned to the court in 2004. She played well in her junior year as starter and led the team, as well as wining an ESPY Award for "Best Comeback" ("Don't Give Up. . .Don't Ever Give Up!"® being their motto).

In her fifteenth game of her senior season she was thunderstruck during a timeout to feel the defibrillator zap her. Not once, but twice. She panicked and ran off down the tunnel to the change rooms,  “I was scared that it was going to keep going off.” 9-1-1 was called but her rhythm returned to normal before they arrived. “I was really grateful that it didn’t happen thirty seconds earlier, as I would have been on the court,” Kayla told me. “There were about four thousand people in the stands, and I would have probably collapsed in front of everyone. I was just thankful no one saw it.” The EMTs took her, in uniform, to the hospital (across the street!) where they determined she had suffered an episode of Ventricular Tachycardia. Her heart had been beating 270 times a minute, and she was still standing! She was kept overnight, and again told she must retire from basketball.

“It was hard, but I knew I’d been able to live out a dream, and I’m peaceful about it. My life is more important, and if it isn’t safe for me then I just have to give up the sport,” she said without regret. Two years have passed without incident, so maybe Kayla made the best choice.

You will still find Kayla on the court, however. She returned to coaching college basketball at University of Portland, although when she sees her teammates head overseas to play professionally, she knows that just wasn’t an option for her.

-Jeremy Whitehead

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