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Duluth basketball coach Will Starks awaits heart transplant

Dyami Starks listens as his father, Will, talks about his health condition from the bed he uses in the living room of his Lincoln Park home. Will Starks, a noted basketball coach and organizer, is on a waiting list for a heart transplant. (Steve Kuchera / / 3
Pictures of Duluth basketball coach Will Starks and his family hang on wall of his living room, in sight of his modified bed. (Steve Kuchera / / 3
Will Starks pauses on the court in 2002, nine years after he started his own summer basketball league. (File / News Tribune)3 / 3

Will Starks had just returned home from dinner with his wife and youngest daughter when he noticed his heart was beating rapidly.

It was early January, less than a month after an annual checkup had revealed the first hints of a potential heart defect for the 48-year-old Starks. Still, he never realized the severity of his situation.

Nobody did, not until that January night ended with Starks being rushed to the hospital. An ambulance arrived at his Lincoln Park home, and the former Duluth East boys basketball assistant coach said emergency medical workers told him that his heart rate had skyrocketed to 240 beats per minute. Normal is between 60 and 100.

Just like that, the vibrant father of three saw his life change forever. His days, for so long filled with basketball, now revolve around rest, hospital visits and physical therapy.

Even as Starks recuperates, he faces a harsh reality. His heart, operating at about 40 percent of a normal person’s, is failing him.

The result? Starks needs a heart transplant.

Long road back

Starks stayed at the hospital for a couple days after being rushed there in January. An electrocardiogram showed everything to be fine.

“But they couldn’t figure out why the heart was beating so fast,” Starks said last week.

Starks spoke while propped up on a modified bed in his living room. His son, Dyami, home from Bryant University in Rhode Island, was seated on a couch behind him pecking away on a laptop. Both had been focused on the TV as ESPN’s talking heads pontificated on the pair’s favorite subject: basketball, specifically the NBA playoffs.

After some good-natured ribbing — Dyami was especially pleased that his father’s favorite team, the Los Angeles Clippers, had been eliminated — Will returned to the topic of his health.

He said one week after his initial scare, when his heart rate reached perilous levels, it happened again. This time, doctors discovered that the pulmonary sarcoidosis (inflammation) in his lungs had spread to his heart.

On Feb. 11, Starks was implanted with a dual-chamber defibrillator and a pacemaker. The defibrillator detects and regulates rapid heart rhythms, while the pacemaker acts as a stabilizer.

Not much later, the implant shocked him for the first time. It happened at home while he was getting ready to climb the stairs and go to bed. By the time he reached the second floor, Starks said, he had been shocked four times.

“It was the worst pain I’ve ever dealt with in my life, by far,” he said, bristling at the memory.

He eventually spent three weeks in April at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. There, doctors determined the cardiac sarcoidosis was too widespread to operate.

Instead, Starks was added to a national database of people needing a heart transplant. He is on the database’s “B” list, meaning his situation isn’t as dire as those on the “A” list. There are nearly 4,000 people in the United States awaiting a transplant, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing. There were 1,529 people on the B list as of May 16, according to the Mayo Clinic’s Department of Public Affairs.

“It could be two years, it could be four years, it could be six years,” Starks said.

‘Something I have to go through’

Since he was discharged from the Mayo at the end of April, Starks hasn’t received a single shock. He is taking more than 30 medications daily, which have helped stabilize him. His resting heart rate consistently ranges between 68-72.

Despite everything he has been through, Starks refuses to feel bad for himself.

“I never really did go through that period where you have self-pity and feel sorry for yourself,” he said. “I never felt like that. I feel like, you know, this is something I have to go through.”

He said, up until December, he had no idea that anything was wrong with his heart. A gym rat who was always seemingly playing, instructing or refereeing basketball — either in the local leagues that bear his name or among the high school and college players he trains — Starks was in good shape.

“He was a totally healthy guy in December,” said his wife, Becky. “We were running all over the country watching Dyami’s basketball games, and we had just returned from a trip to New York, watching him play at Madison Square Garden.

“Within two weeks of that trip, everything kind of all hit at once.”

His health, it turns out, was trumped by genetics.

Will’s father died of a massive heart attack at the age of 54.

Family, basketball spur recovery

As Starks continues his arduous recovery, he gleans comfort from two primary sources — family and basketball.

Aside from Dyami and Becky, his two daughters, 21-year-old Aubree and 10-year-old Dasia, also have taken their turns looking after their father.

“They’ve been tremendous,” he said. “My wife is my rock; my wife has been absolutely incredible throughout this entire ordeal. And my son left school early to come home and be with his dad. He takes care of me during the day while my wife is at work, and he’s done a great job with that. It’s around the clock.”

Even far-flung relatives have visited. Near the end of his stay in Rochester, Starks received a late-night surprise when his two sisters, Gwyn Gaiter and Nikki Hardrick, traveled all the way from Atlanta.

“He had no idea they were going to show up,” Becky said. “He was half asleep and his big sister (Gwyn) poked her head in the door and said his name. You should have seen the look on his face; it was just total surprise.”

After having his dad care for him the majority of his life, the 21-year-old Dyami admits the roles have reversed. Now, he is the caregiver.

“Seeing your dad for the first 20 years of your life … (and he’s) finally starting to make steps to becoming that man again — that’s definitely gratifying,” said Dyami, who finished as Duluth East’s second-leading career scorer.

The two spend their days squabbling over ESPN until Dyami leaves to work out once Becky gets home from her job as a math teacher at Lincoln Park Middle School. Dyami is back in time to watch playoff basketball each night.

“It’s like clockwork, man,” he said.

That is hardly surprising; his father has built his life around the sport.

“All he does is basketball — that’s what he does — so I’m sure it’s extremely tough for him,” said former Lakeview Christian Academy standout Anders Broman, among the area’s elite players who regularly trained under Starks’ tutelage.

Broman recalled a recent workout of his and Dyami’s that Will attended. Starks’ appearance was brief and he was merely a spectator, but he was back in a gym.

It was proof he’s on the mend.

Increasingly, his energy is returning. He’s becoming more confident and moving better, which will allow him to start doing physical therapy away from home.

Starks’ hope is that one day he will be back to normal, back barking instructions on the court and not living in fear of a faulty heart.

“I absolutely hope to get to a point where I can get back to normal,” he said. “I love being in the gym, I love basketball, I love training kids, so it’s been tough for me. I miss that more than anything.”