Later, when Gary and Jocelyn searched their memories for some outward sign of their son's declining health, they could find none. He never missed a game or complained about shortness of breath. In at least two games that winter, he had flulike symptoms but still played well. Even toward the end of the season he came home after every game to lift weights and jump rope. If there was pain in his heart, he kept it to himself. He had a cough and a sore throat the first week of March. But on the day of the Bridgman game he felt well enough to take on his friend and teammate DeMarcus McGee in a dunk contest, during which he bounced the ball off the backboard and jammed it home.
If Wes's normal appearance was an illusion made possible by his supreme tolerance for pain, one might conclude he was too tough for his own good. Pain, after all, is the body's alarm system.
But it's also possible that he felt just fine. His illness could have remained asymptomatic until the moment it became catastrophic.
Here's how Jeffrey Towbin, chief of pediatric cardiology at Cincinnati Children's Hospital, explains it. Although the doctor who performed the autopsy thought a previous viral infection might have caused the scar tissue, Towbin and other prominent cardiologists reviewed the report and reached a different conclusion: Wes Leonard was probably born with a rare genetic mutation that slowly weakened the bonds among the muscle cells in his heart. The technical term is arrythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy. It's unusual enough—affecting perhaps one person in every 5,000—that the average doctor probably wouldn't recognize it. Over the years this defective gene caused the thin walls of his right ventricle to get even thinner. It thinned the left ventricle too. In the final months fat and scar tissue replaced so much muscle that the heart's electrical forces were disrupted. It couldn't maintain a regular beat.
Under this theory, Wes Leonard's heart went from all to nothing like a collapsing bridge. The bridge holds up for years, slowly worn down by the weight of cars and the ravages of weather. Bolts quietly work loose. A billion vehicles cross without incident. And then, one rush hour, it all falls into the river.
Hearts, like bridges, can be inspected to prevent failure. But the issue is less simple than it sounds. Heart examinations come in several forms. The cheapest and most common, the electrocardiogram, can detect one set of problems and miss a second set and even falsely diagnose a third. If Wes Leonard had taken an electrocardiogram on the day of his last game, it might have found nothing wrong. Other tests exist—the echocardiogram, the cardiac MRI—but they're expensive and less practical to administer on a massive scale.
Although Wes's genetic disease was very rare, it culminated in a terribly common event called sudden cardiac arrest. About 900 Americans die from it every day. And many of those deaths could be prevented with a machine called an automatic external defibrillator. The defibrillator is a portable box of electricity that can shock a quivering heart back into rhythmic pumping. It costs about $1,200. In theory anyone can use it—even a person with no medical training—because it analyzes the patient's heartbeat, gives step-by-step instructions in a computerized voice and refuses to deliver a shock unless it determines a shock is actually needed.
Victims of sudden cardiac arrest almost always stand a better chance of survival if they're defibrillated within 10 minutes.
When Wes Leonard collapsed at Fennville High School on the night of March 3, 2011, there was a defibrillator in the building, perhaps 50 feet from the gym.
Xavier watched the start of the second half from his usual place on the bench. The coach liked Xavier's frantic energy and his three-point stroke, but his shot was off that night. Other Blackhawks were cold too, which meant Wes had to lead the comeback. He cut the lead to seven with a lovely midrange jumper in Michael Kamp's face. Wes pumped his fist and looked at his coach, who was yelling something, and that momentary distraction gave Kamp a chance to blaze down the right sideline and beat Wes for a layup. Bridgman led 37--28. Game on.