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IT COULDN'T BE A HEART ATTACK—BUT IT WAS
Arthur Ashe
September 03, 1979
Athletes are not exempt, as the author painfully discovered. He urges better diagnostic tools
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September 03, 1979

It Couldn't Be A Heart Attack—but It Was

Athletes are not exempt, as the author painfully discovered. He urges better diagnostic tools

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Well, I didn't know of any, and so I started doing some research while I was in the hospital. I could only come up with three (present company excepted): Dave Stallworth of the New York Knicks in 1967, John Hiller of the Detroit Tigers in 1971 and Chuck Hughes of the Detroit Lions, also in 1971. Hughes died in the closing minutes of a game. Hiller came back and is still playing, almost a decade later, at the age of 36. Stallworth came back and played five more seasons in the NBA. But apart from athletic flukes, like the four of us, there is, I found out, a set of clinical symptoms for what has become known as "athlete's heart." It is not a heart disease but a heart condition. The heart is larger than average, there are strange-sounding heartbeats, and there are other symptoms which for the average person would be cause for alarm, but are perfectly routine for an intensely trained athlete. The trick is to subtract the congenital and acquired heart disease from the total set of data. This is not easy to do. It is difficult even for experienced doctors to tell exactly what is wrong with an athlete's heart.

Sports medicine is itself increasingly becoming a specialization. I'm delighted with this trend—and was long before I had my heart attack. Just as sports law presents a unique set of problems within the legal profession, so does sports medicine within its discipline. I'm not just talking about pro athletes, either. The ills and ailments of high school and college athletes are important enough to warrant specialization.

This is all said with the understanding that my case would surely have defied diagnosis no matter what the attending physicians' specialties were. I didn't get a heart attack from playing tennis all my life. On the contrary, Dr. Scheidt explained it was the other way around. My good physical conditioning undoubtedly saved me from what would have been a major heart attack.

At the time of my attack I was ranked No. 7 in the world, and at my age I had had to pay an especially high price to attain that rating, coming back as I did from my heel operation and a long convalescence. So why go through that all over again—especially since I don't plan to play competitive tennis more than another two years or so?

Well, it's simple, really. I'm not ready to stop. At my age it's fun playing tennis. I know my competition, and obviously I can more than hold my own. My ranking will drop a little between now and the time I get back on the tour, and it will be my aim to see if I can't get myself back up to No. 7 by, say, next Easter. I've always been goal oriented, and for me that is a worthy goal. And I'm going to chase every ball. I'm not going back scared.

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