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A matter of heart: Scappoose swimmer returns after heart procedure

Less than a week after having a heart procedure, Scappoose junior Stefany Alvarez was back in the pool


by: JOHN WILLIAM HOWARD - Scappoose junior Stefany Alvarez competes in the girls' 100 yard butterfly earlier this year. On Jan. 24, she went in for a heart procedure and was competing just six days later.As humans, it's easy to focus on the problems in life and forget to seek out the positives. The trials and tribulations each of us are faced with can often overshadow the great victories, undermining successes and casting a blight on periods where things are smooth and easy.

With the passage of time, the good things fade, and people are in need of a reminder that the value in hardships is the lessons learned in overcoming the difficult things in life. The example of those around us, whether from a close friend or simply a story told in passing, can be enough to serve as a reminder: keep working, keep at it, and things will clear up.

On Jan. 30, when the Scappoose swim team traveled to Astoria, they bore with them one of those stories. Many members of the team were taking things a little light at the meet, racing different events to keep things fresh, and prepping for the league meet on Feb. 7. Junior Stefany Alvarez, who had been an anchor on the squad's relay teams and a regular threat to win the 100 yard butterfly, was scheduled only to race the 50 yard freestyle, but not because of the upcoming championships: Alvarez was recovering from a heart procedure less than a week prior.

As far back as five years ago, Alvarez had known something was out of sorts.

“I just figured it was me working hard, not that big of a deal,” she said. “I kind of just ignored it, and then it started to happen a lot more, so then I told my mom about it. We tested it at one of my checkups. That's when we started to do something.”

Avlarez's condition, a heart problem called Supraventricular Tachycardia, or SVT, is a condition that causes the heart to beat far faster than normal. It can beat as high as 300 beats per minute in some cases, and for a swimmer like Alvarez, can wreak havoc on an athlete's ability to compete.

As far back as 2009, she began to notice periods in which her heart would beat faster than it should during time in the pool. A rapid heartbeat was normal, but this time was different.

“I felt like I couldn't move, like my brain wasn't making my legs move,” she said. “I was trying to, but it wasn't happening.”

Normally gliding through the water with ease, Alvarez would slow to a crawl, climbing out of the pool to rest if not involved in a race. None of the events lasted longer than 30 minutes, which would have elicited a visit to the hospital, but the time out of the pool waiting for her heart to slow began to grow as her junior season wore on. And with her sights firmly set on making it to the state championships, the problem with her heart was more than an irritation.

“It affects me a lot, cause a lot of times we do time trials, and that kind of stuff, so I wouldn't get the time that I would want,” she said. “I got a lot slower because my body felt like it was shutting down and I'd get really tired.”

Before making a positive diagnosis, however, the doctors needed hard proof of exactly what was happening. And because the episodes tended to happen in the pool, none of the doctor's tests could be run.

That meant changing the game, and somewhat literally. Fixed up with wires to monitor heart activity, Alvarez went to the track instead of the pool, pushing herself above ground in hopes to capture an episode for the doctor's analysis. And time after time, nothing happened.

“It was the beginning of the swim season, so all I wanted to be doing was swimming, not go out to the track and running to try and get my heart beating,” said Alvarez. “When I finally was able to get the palpitation with the monitor on, I was really happy.”

With the results in the doctor's hands, the news was good: it's serious, but nothing to be too worried about. As an athlete, though, she'd need a fix.

Before the season started, the Alvarez family notified the team's coach, David Richmond, of the condition facing them. They decided waiting it out wasn't an option anymore, but the challenge was when to act and figuring out how long she'd need to recover.

As it turns out, the procedure was non-invasive, and she'd be able to go home later the same day. If all went well, she could be swimming inside a week. That was the best case.

Surgery day was scheduled for Jan. 24, three days after the home meet with Tillamook and Banks, and early that morning, Alvarez was headed to the hospital, mind carefree and focused more on missing school and practice than the upcoming heart procedure.

“It wasn't that nerve racking,” she said. “I was actually cool as a clam, or whatever. It's just a procedure. They're not actually opening up my chest or anything, so I was just relaxed and happy that I got to skip school and lay down all day.”

After spending an hour waiting post-check in and sitting through an EKG, she got an IV and a little anesthesia before falling asleep.

“I remember waking up and having the doctors tell my parents that it was time for me to go, then I just remember rolling to the main hospital and them bringing me to the room,” she said. “They had to lift me up on to the table, and then they said I was going to have some oxygen and I passed out.”

Waking up after the procedure wasn't pleasant. As the anesthesia wore off, frustration at not being able to see without her glasses, not knowing her surroundings, pain in her legs and a dry throat began to boil over. After a six-hour wait, it was all over and she was home later that afternoon.

Monday was a regular school day, and on Thursday, she boarded the bus bound for Astoria. Richmond decided it was okay for her to compete, but she'd have to wait before getting back to the butterfly.

“She's the most mentally tough person on the team, plus she's been training probably since the third grade,” he said. “She's got a strong passion for swimming, she loves it. She's super dedicated, and I think that helps her too. It's just a small barrier, and she believed it would be just a small bump in the road and I think they did it at the right time.”

Though the symptoms may take a week or two for them to completely fade, Alvarez is on the mend, her mind eternally focused on her goal from the beginning of the season.

“My goals haven't changed at all,” she said. “I still really want to go to state. That's been my goal the whole season, and my heart problem worried me, but it didn't get in the way.”

Alvarez plans to work on bolstering her mental strength and meditating before events – she did yoga before practice on Wednesday, as she pointed out – but it comes as a huge relief to have the weight of the heart condition off her shoulders.

“I'm really happy that I won't have that burden on me anymore, and before a race I can get myself pumped up and not have to worry about pumping myself up too much,” she said. “It's good. I'm happy.”