It was after midnight when the phone rang. Pete Compton felt his pulse racing as he heard the news his family had wished for and dreaded. A boy had died in a traffic accident; now there was a donor heart for 12-year-old Erik Compton, who needed a transplant. Pete went to his son's dark bedroom, touched him and said, "Erik, wake up. Now's the time."
"I know. I heard the phone," Erik said.
Today, six years later, you wouldn't know he had undergone a heart transplant unless he showed you the scar that bisects his chest. The 18-year-old senior at Miami's Palmetto High seems like any other young golfer, only better—he's No. 1 in the latest national rankings. "Without my heart problem I probably wouldn't have discovered golf" Compton says, "so I don't regret anything."
He was a born jock. At nine lie was a Little League shortstop, the fastest kid in school, until what appeared to be a long winter cold turned out to be something worse. He had congestive cardiomyopathy, a disease that made his heart expand and beat irregularly. "By the time Erik was 11, he was in serious trouble. He was vomiting frequently, seeing spots. Sudden death was a real risk," says Lee Ann Pearse, who supervised the pediatric heart-transplant program that sought to match Erik to a donor. Yet the boy wouldn't accept his fate. 'Young people don't feel mortal," Pete Compton says. "We had trouble getting it through his bead how sick he was." Erik would sneak out to play baseball or suddenly take off sprinting down the street, leaving his worried family behind. Still worse was a seemingly endless year of waiting for a donor heart. As Pearse says, "It's awfully stressful to watch your child dying in front of you."
The call finally came at 1:30 a.m. on Feb. 26,1992, and with help from a police escort the Comptons gathered at Miami's Jackson Memorial Hospital, where Erik was taken to one of a pair of side-by-side operating theaters. First the donor's heart was removed and placed in a freezing solution for storage. Surgeon Richard Perryman took out Compton's diseased heart and transplanted its ice-cold replacement. "Then we waited and watched while the heart warmed up. When it started beating, I think my heart skipped a beat," Pearse says.
Compton woke to a new set of challenges. The operation left him too weak to play baseball. The drugs that suppressed his body's urge to reject the heart made his weight shoot from 90 pounds to 130. He was ashamed to go to his sixth grade graduation looking so fat, but responded with characteristic spirit. He gritted his teeth and showed up.
"I was always an in-your-face kind of kid," he says. Without baseball he needed an outlet for his competitive drive and found it at Costa del Sol, the golf course beside the Comptons' condo. Within six weeks of the transplant he was hitting balls, enjoying the solitude of the driving range. In his weakened condition he could hit a five-iron only 80 yards, but he practiced until he could rifle a ball 190 yards with the same club. In less than a year Compton was breaking 90. A few months later he shot 77 and began entering local tournaments. Today his high school coach calls him the best ball striker Miami has produced in decades. He had top 10 finishes in six of nine junior tournaments last year-and took another giant step in the 1997-98 season when two third-place finishes, a second and a win at the Rolex Junior Classic shot him to the top of the rankings. "Something clicked for me this year. I stopped trying too hard," says Compton, whose steady nerves and surgically precise 260-to 280-yard drives are becoming the envy of the junior circuit.
He still isn't out of the woods physically. He takes 14 pills a day to fight tissue rejection and endures an annual biopsy in which a catheter is injected and a bit of heart tissue is snipped off, a painful procedure he calls "emotionally tough." Peer pressure, too, can be tough on a competitor like Compton, who says he could do widiout "punks hassling me about being 'just' a golfer, just because football and baseball are the big high school sports."
This week he's among the favorites at the Taylor Made Pinelsle (Ga.) Junior Classic, which starts on Friday. Compton was to announce on Wednesday that he'll attend Georgia, a choice based partly on the Athens campus's proximity to Emory University Medical Center. "More important, though, it's where I want to play," he says. "I used to like baseball more, but I'm all about golf now. It's sort of a selfish game. In golf it's all on you, win or lose. I like that." As for living with a heart he wasn't born with, he adds, "Sure, I have my worries, but who doesn't?"
Worries? On his last trip to Disney World he rode Space Mountain eight times in a row.