At 21, Chris O’Connell learned his pediatric cardiologist had retired. He was assigned a new doctor for the annual checkups he’d had all his life.
“I know you’ve been told to not exercise hard or strain your heart, but that’s the old way of thinking,” the cardiologist told him. “Think of your heart as a muscle that needs to be worked out.”
Chris was blindsided.
“Are you serious?” he asked.
Chris – who lives about an hour north of San Francisco in Rohnert Park, California – was an infant when he was diagnosed with a transitional atrioventricular canal defect. He was born with a condition in which extra blood travels to the lung arteries, which can make the heart and lungs work harder. This can cause the heart to enlarge and the lungs to become congested.
At 3, he underwent surgery to repair the problem. His pediatric cardiologist warned him not to exert himself because it could further strain his heart. His parents enforced what seemed like sound advice.
When Chris was young, he convinced his parents to let him play baseball. Although he was great at hitting the ball, he forced himself to run tepidly. In high school, he switched to golf.
Now, hearing this exciting news from his new doctor, he was receiving a different message – to cut loose and push himself.
“Maybe you can start running,” suggested his wife, Emily O’Connell.
It took Chris a couple of months to wrap his head around the idea. Then he decided, “If I’m going to do this, I’m going to go for it all the way.”
One of his favorite TV shows was “American Ninja Warrior,” a sports entertainment reality show where thousands of competitors attempt to complete a series of obstacle courses of increasing difficulty.
He would start training for the show.
Three years later, in 2013, Chris was finally ready to submit a video showing he was worthy of an audition. He was in the best shape of his life, having improved his upper-body strength, grip and balance, all important skills for the competition.
Before making the recording, he went for his annual cardiac checkup.
Days later, he was on the golf course when his cardiologist called. She told him there was a problem with his aortic valve. It needed to be repaired right away.
“Can we just wait a couple of months?” he asked. “My wife is 8 months pregnant.”
The doctor said no. Surgery was scheduled for two weeks later.
The valve repair was successful. But Chris had a complication – both lungs collapsed. He had an emergency surgery and stayed in the hospital for 11 days.
When he returned home, he could barely walk and was told not to lift anything. Emily, still pregnant, had to do everything for him, including helping him sit up.
Their son, Cavan, was born less than a month later.
Everything went well with the delivery, and Cavan received a clean bill of health. Years earlier, the couple had been told it was unlikely they’d have a child with a heart defect, and it appeared that was the case.
Then, at Cavan’s two-week checkup, the pediatrician listened to Cavan’s heart for an extended time.
Chris and Emily looked at each other nervously.
“I already knew before he said anything,” Chris said.
Cavan was diagnosed with two congenital heart defects. One, endocardial cushion defect, was similar to his father’s. The other was mitral valve stenosis, a narrowing of the heart’s mitral valve that can cause exhaustion and shortness of breath, among other problems.
Doctors said Cavan would need several surgeries throughout his life to repair the damage. The first surgery came when he was 2 months old.
“That first moment of seeing him at the ICU after the surgery with over a dozen wires hooked up to him with his chest open made me sick to my stomach,” Emily said. “I felt like I was dying inside.”
Cavan developed complications and ended up spending 36 days in the hospital.
Two years later, he needed a second surgery. That one went smoothly and he was home in four days. Now 8, he’ll face others in the future.
Chris, meanwhile, never gave up on his dream of becoming an American Ninja Warrior.
Once he recovered from surgery and Cavan’s health had stabilized, he returned to training. In 2018, he auditioned again.
“I’d been building up my upper body to do the obstacles, but I wasn’t prepared for the actual obstacles,” he said. “It’s way harder on an actual course because you have to do all these specialty moves with your body.”
He fell on the first obstacle, knocking him out of the competition.
In 2019, he was invited back. He made it to the second obstacle.
This year, he was back again. Now 32, he got through three obstacles, enough to put him on a televised episode. It was taped in mid-March and aired on July 11.
Before Chris competed, a video aired about his and Cavan’s heart defects and surgeries. Then cameras cut to Cavan and Emily in the VIP section.
“At first I wanted to do it to prove to myself,” said Chris, who competed under the name Heart Warrior Ninja. “Then I realized that if I can make it on the air, then I can help other people too by bringing focus to congenital heart defects. I also wanted to show Cavan that anything is possible, that he doesn’t need to be afraid or slow down because of his heart.”
Emily said Cavan already follows his father’s lead.
“It’s like Chris isn’t afraid of anything, so Cavan has this fearless energy too,” Emily said. “As a mom it’s kind of scary, but it’s also kind of cool. It’s OK to be afraid, but you don’t have to let fear rule your life.”
Stories from the Heart chronicles the inspiring journeys of heart disease and stroke survivors, caregivers and advocates.
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