Heart condition couldn't stop Duluth Centrals leading scorer and rebounder
It's not hyperbole to say Garth Heikkinen plays his heart out on the basketball court. The 6-foot-4, 270-pound Duluth Central senior is a two-sport standout, but that might not have been possible without a procedure that fixed Heikkinen's rapid h...
It's not hyperbole to say Garth Heikkinen plays his heart out on the basketball court.
The 6-foot-4, 270-pound Duluth Central senior is a two-sport standout, but that might not have been possible without a procedure that fixed Heikkinen's rapid heart rate.
Heikkinen was a typical 12-year-old when he was afflicted with an irregular heartbeat. His mother, Geralyn, a nurse at St. Luke's hospital, measured her son's heart rate at 200 beats per minute. Moments later in the emergency room, that rate rose to 265.
Doctors diagnosed Heikkinen with paroxysmal supraventricular tachycardia (PSVT), an affliction that usually is more unpleasant than dangerous. Still, a future in high school athletics wasn't likely without fixing the problem.
"[Doctors] said if I didn't have the surgery that it wouldn't be a good idea playing sports after that," Heikkinen said."But after the surgery, there's like a 3 percent chance of it returning."
During one arrhythmia episode, Heikkinen was given adenosine into his intravenous fluids. The drug momentarily stops the heart. In that split-second, Heikkinen passed out and his heart flat-lined on the monitor.
"That was scary for me," his mother said.
During surgery, doctors went into the heart, isolated the electrical pathway that was causing the problem and cauterized it so it wouldn't reoccur. Heikkinen has been fine ever since.
"I was too naïve [to be scared]," he said. "My mom was more scared than I was about it."
The Central athletic program has benefitted from Heikkinen's good health. He was an All-State offensive lineman on the football team and leads the Trojans basketball team in scoring (21.1 points per game) and rebounding (11.3).
"I think he's the best rebounder in the area," first-year Trojans coach Dave LeGarde said. "He gets himself in good position, and he's so wide that it's tough to get around him."
Heading into the season, LeGarde was concerned about who was going to score on a team that graduated nearly everyone from the Section 7AAA champion team. Heikkinen has allayed those concerns -- when he receives the ball in the post, it's nearly an automatic two points because of his excellent technique.
"His hand-and-foot coordination have improved dramatically in the past year," LeGarde said.
Teammates say Heikkinen isn't your typical plodding lineman on the court.
"What helps him on the basketball court is that football ability. He uses his weight better than anybody I've ever seen," senior guard Mike Kerr said. "He's big, but he's got that nice touch around the rim. You don't expect that from a big guy."
Though he's played basketball longer than he has football, it's the latter sport that Heikkinen will pursue in college. He's reiterated his commitment to sign a national letter of intent with Minnesota Duluth next month despite the program's coaching upheaval in recent weeks. Previous head coach Kyle Schweigert and offensive coordinator Phil Longo left for jobs at Southern Illinois. UMD athletic director Bob Nielson stepped in to replace Schweigert, while Longo's position is unfilled.
"It's been crazy with coach Schweigert leaving and coach Longo leaving," Heikkinen said. "But I've talked to Nielson and he told me that he's as committed to me as Schweigert was. I think things are going to work out."
Heikkinen also says he has talked with former Central teammate and current UMD freshman Noah Pauley about playing basketball together on an intramural team.
"It'd be definitely hard to give up basketball," he said. "The passion will probably still be there."
And basketball will be Heikkinen's main concern the next few weeks. The Trojans (7-8) are one of the favorites in a wide-open Section 7AAA field. If they return to the state tournament, Heikkinen likely will lead the way.
"I like being in the leadership role," he said. "If the game is on the line, I want to have the ball in my hands."
That doesn't surprise LeGarde.
"In school and in sports, he's one of those guys who commands attention," his coach said.
But he does it with a light-hearted approach. Perhaps that's why he's so popular.
"Everybody knows Garth, no matter what grade you're in," Kerr said. "He's always got a smile on his face and is joking around.
"He's definitely the big man on campus."
RICK WEEGMAN covers prep boys basketball. He can be reached at (218) 723-5302, (800) 456-8181 or at email@example.com .