All Michele O’Brien has to do is look at the 9 inch scar that runs down the middle of her chest to be reminded of the extraordinary journey that started 29 years ago when she was just 4 years old. A rare congenital heart defect, a heart attack, and two open heart surgeries, all before age 15, were not enough to keep the soccer phenom from the sport she loves or from going on to conquer it at the most elite level as both player and coach.
Michele started playing soccer at age 3. It was all the spunky, athletically inclined toddler wanted to do, and she was good at it… unusually good at it. She ran circles around the other kids, had non-stop energy, and it became increasingly clear that her skills were well beyond what you typically see in a child her age.
About a year into the blossoming soccer star’s career, a run-of-the-mill case of strep throat temporarily sidelined her, as it would any other kid. But for Michele, that sore throat is what saved her life and changed the course of it forever. During the routine strep exam with her pediatrician, he heard a murmur in her heart. As a precaution, he sent the seemingly healthy 4 year old to a cardiologist.
The murmur turned out to be a rare congenital heart defect called a coronary arterial fistula. In Michele’s case, she was born with what she describes as “an extra artery” that was causing her normal blood flow to be altered. Her parents were told that in order to correct the condition and close it off, their little girl would have to undergo open-heart surgery.
WYSK asked Michele’s mother, Margaret O’Brien, what being confronted with that kind of gut wrenching news felt like. She told us, “I went numb. I could hear the doctor’s voice, but his words were running together and I felt as if I was on the outside looking in.” She added, “My thoughts were focused on the chance that I may lose my child who I love more than life itself. My heart ached and the fear was overwhelming.” Fortunately, Michele was too young to understand what she was going to have to endure, which is something Margaret is still grateful for today.
The surgery was a success and Michele’s heart was strong and in great shape. She was given no post-recovery restrictions and her only requirement was annual checks-ups with her cardiologist. With that, the pint-sized soccer star was back on the field by age 5, hitting it as hard as ever. The next 9 years of her young life were filled with goals, assists and win after win after win.
that’s when the unthinkable happened to Michele… continue reading