Last month, former Virginia Tech basketball player Allan Chaney received a phone call he had waited on for more than two years. On the other end was Francis Marchlinski, the University of Pennsylvania cardiologist who shepherded Chaney’s recovery from a potentially serious heart infection called viral myocarditis. He delivered the good news: Chaney finally had been granted medical clearance to resume his basketball career.
“I had a big ol’ smile on my face. Hadn’t had one of those in a long, long time,” Chaney said as he thought back to that conversation recently. “It was just a real huge relief. . . . If he didn’t clear me, nobody would clear me.”
If you’re not familiar with the details of Chaney’s medical history, take a look at my story from January about his quest to become the only Division I basketball player in the country with a defibrillator in his chest.
After transferring to Virginia Tech from Florida before the 2009-10 season, Chaney collapsed during an offseason workout in April 2010. Doctors determined the episode was caused by a virus in Chaney’s heart, and scarring had developed around the organ. Last August, Virginia Tech’s sports medicine department announced it would never be able to medically clear Chaney because of complications from viral myocarditis, an infection of the heart that causes inflammation and, in some cases, can be fatal.
Chaney, though, has not allowed the ruling to end his career.
When we last checked in with him back in December, a back-up defibrillator had recently been installed in Chaney’s chest to offset the possibility of arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats). His risk for another heart episode had been lowered dramatically, but doctors were still able to induce arrhythmias during the extreme portions of subsequent electrophysiology studies that test the heart’s electrical function.
So in March, Chaney underwent another surgical ablation procedure at the University of Pennsylvania in which doctors opened up his chest and froze the abnormal tissue around his heart that had been causing the arrhythmias. Immediately after the surgery, Marchlinski stimulated Chaney’s heart and “could not initiate any arrhythmias,” Marchlinski wrote in an e-mail last week.
At a follow-up appointment in May, Marchlinski repeated the stimulation with the infusion of isoprotenerol (to mimic adrenaline) and there were still no arrhythmias. During stress tests on an inclined treadmill – Chaney described it as “running up a wall” – Chaney no longer experienced irregular heartbeats.
“This indicates that we have reduced his risk of spontaneous arrhythmias to the lowest level possible,” Marchlinski wrote. “If the testing is as accurate as anticipated, he should not have any spontaneous arrhythmias even during extreme physical activity required for competitive athleticism.”
Marchlinski went one step further, testing Chaney’s defibrillator by artificially initiating an arrhythmia twice, and the device sensed and stopped the arrhythmias without any issues.
As he has said all along, Marchlinski can’t guarantee that Chaney won’t suffer another cardiac episode because of these procedures, and any school that potentially grants Chaney clearance would need a back-up defibrillator courtside whenever he plays.
But Chaney may be closer than he has been since April 2010 to playing college basketball again.
“I cannot speak for any team physician and certainly I cannot indicate that there is a guarantee that Allan will not experience an arrhythmia event – this is never possible in this situation,” Marchlinski wrote. “But I believe we left no stone unturned in trying to eliminate his arrhythmia and have reduced his risk to the lowest possible level. . . . We are enthusiastic about Allan’s health prospects, and at this point would hope that he is allowed all the opportunity that he has fought off the court so bravely to achieve.”
Last August’s ruling by Virginia Tech’s sports medicine department has eliminated the possibility of Chaney ever playing for the Hokies, but he said seven schools have inquired about his situation in recent months. Chaney is scheduled to earn his undergraduate degree in apparel, housing and resource management from Virginia Tech next month, which would allow him to play at another school without sitting out a season. He would be classified as a redshirt senior next year.
Chaney is currently spending his days working out at his old high school, St. Paul’s, in Baltimore. Next week he plans to play in a Roanoke summer league with a friend and he’s hopeful Virginia Tech will allow him to work out with the basketball team’s strength and conditioning coach, David Jackson, in the near future.
“Skill-wise, I’m not worried at all. I’m really trying to focus on getting in the best shape possible,” Chaney said. “It’s gonna be the quickness of the game and being able to withstand playing for 40 minutes hard. Hopefully in July I can really find somewhere where some pros and big time college guys are working out so I can really get my intensity back.”
Chaney’s future remains uncertain because of the risk involved for any school that is willing to give him a chance. No doctor can promise his heart will never fail again.
But at this point, after two years of recovery, Chaney is past the point of being discouraged. He’s confident this long and arduous journey back to the court has finally turned a corner.
“This is a blessing. I have a second chance,” Chaney said. “I’m gonna try to enjoy this time and work hard to get back to where I was, and even better. I think somebody will give me an opportunity, because I’ve gone through the correct steps to get to this point. God willing, I stay healthy and I just continue to show I’m healthy.”