Monday, January 19, 2009

Booker Nunley: A Hurdler with a Heart

Every now and then real life gets in the way of track and field. All the aspirations dreams and goals get put on hold for a while as we’re reminded that death is an integral, inescapable part of life. And we realize, quite ironically, that awareness of death is what gives life its depth and meaningfulness, and that it motivates us to live more authentically. This past fall one of my former athletes endured a scary ordeal that served that not only threatened his promising track career, but also his life.

The summer of 2008 proved to be a stellar one for Booker. He won the Junior National Championships with a nation-leading 13.40, went on to finish second at the World Junior Championships in Poland with a 13.41, and concluded his career over the 39’s with a 13.41 victory at the US Junior Olympic Championships. Everything seemed to be going Booker’s way. In addition to all the victories and accolades, he would be heading to the University of South Carolina in the fall on a full athletic scholarship. He was on top of the world. Little did he know that that world would soon fall apart.
Gilbert Syndrome
On Tuesday October 28, 2008, according to Booker’s mom Jackie, Booker missed class and track practice due to what Booker described as flu-like symptoms. The following day, Jackie wrote in an email, “he called [home] and told us that he hadn’t left his room because he was having some stomach pains and was throwing up.”
According to Booker himself, “I hadn’t eaten for a couple days b/c my stomach was hurting. I threw up three times, dryheaving. It was killing my intestines. I also had chest pains because I was throwing up so much.”
Finally, on the morning of Friday October 31, talked to the team trainer and told her his stomach “was messed up.” The night before, he had been urinating blood. “I didn’t know what was going on,” he said. “I should’ve gone to the hospital that night. But first I just looked it up on google. I was like, Is red urine bad? When I looked it up, the site said to go to a doctor immediately.”
The following morning, the trainer took him to the local hospital in Columbia, SC. After doctors ran several tests, they diagnosed him with Gilbert (pronounced “zheel-bayr) syndrome, a mild liver disorder in which the liver doesn’t properly process a substance called bilirubin. This condition was the reason for the red urine, which probably came about because Booker hadn’t eaten for three days. This rare illness, which is not even considered a disease because of its benign nature, affects only three percent to seven percent of the US population. Symptoms rarely appear, so people may live with it without even realizing they have it. In Booker’s case, its discovery may have saved his life.
Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome
The chest pains brought on by the constant vomiting led the doctors to perform an EKG later that same day, just as a precaution. The test revealed that Booker had another condition, Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome, which is much more serious than Gilbert Syndrome.
At, Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome is described in the following manner:Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome is a condition characterized by abnormal electrical pathways in the heart that cause a disruption of the heart's normal rhythm (arrhythmia). This extra connection can disrupt the coordinated movement of electrical signals through the heart, leading to an abnormally fast heartbeat (tachycardia) and other arrhythmias. Resulting symptoms include dizziness, a sensation of fluttering or pounding in the chest (palpitations), shortness of breath, and fainting. In rare cases, arrhythmias associated with Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome can lead to cardiac arrest and sudden death. To address the Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, the doctors would have to perform surgery, which they did the next day. Booker’s not-so-medical explanation of the surgery is as follows:
“They scoped out my heart by taking a tube camera and they stuck it in my groin and looked at my heart to see if there was a nerve that wasn’t supposed to be there. There was, so once they found that out, they did some type of electro-test and put an electrical charge into my heart. If the nerve that wasn’t supposed to be in there reacted, they would have to take it out. It reacted. They said that if they didn’t take it out, I’d have to stop running track or it would possibly kill me. So basically they went in there and burned the nerve out.”
Booker has had no side effects from the surgery. He was up the next day walking around, and ended up missing only four days of school. According to his doctors, there’s a 1% chance that the syndrome will come back. It’s highly unlikely, and they’ve never seen it happen.
© 2009 Steve McGill

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