Morgan MacLean’s life changed forever while trying out for the Rocky River Magnificat High School girls’ basketball team her freshman year.
“It was early in the morning, very early. We were running drills and working hard, so I figured the rapid heartbeat I felt was just normal,” Morgan recalled. “I told my parents the first few times it happened, but we weren’t worried because I seemed fine and never passed out.”
The abnormal heart rhythms continued. Morgan came up with “tricks” to get them to stop – such as coughing to kick her heart back into rhythm. The little episodes happened so frequently that she got used to them.
Morgan’s first major scare occurred during halftime of a basketball game. “The lighting in the room got dim, and it seemed like the room spun,” she said. “All of a sudden, my heart took off racing and I grabbed my chest. The athletic director ran over, and my coach could not get my pulse because my heart rate was so fast. After that episode, we knew it was serious. We went to the hospital minutes later.”
Morgan’s family sought help from a pediatric cardiology specialist and an electrophysiologist who treated adult patients. “Both were great doctors. But after many tests and no answers, I started to lose hope. I figured I would just have to find a way to live with this,” Morgan shared. “The doctors told me to stop playing sports forever, or I could die. I went on beta-blocker medication to slow my heart rate. At the time, my resting heart rate was about 40 beats per minute. My grandma and I were pretty good at keeping pace with each other at that point!”
In addition to medication, another treatment option included an ablation procedure to burn heart tissues and possibly improve the irregular heart rhythm. “Ablations require hours of radiation, and I was not going to have my 14-year-old daughter exposed to radiation for that long,” Morgan’s mom, Sally, said. “I continued to pray and ask for guidance from the Lord.”
One day while doing research online, Sally found a video featuring Akron Children’s Hospital Cardiologist Dr. John Clark. “He explained cryoablations, which is a minimally invasive procedure to freeze damaged heart tissue and restore rhythm,” she explained. “I immediately called Dr. Clark’s office for an appointment, which Morgan thought would be a waste of time. She just didn’t want to be disappointed again … and I’m happy to say she was wrong.”
Dr. Clark provided the MacLean family with two gifts: a concrete diagnosis and hope for a long-term solution. “He said something like ‘Morgan, I am 98 percent sure I can fix this for you and get you off the medication. I’m pretty sure you have AVNRT,’ which is a type of abnormally rapid heart rate,” Sally recalled. “We left feeling happy, and Morgan wanted Dr. Clark to do the cryoablation.”
On the day of the procedure, Dr. Clark greeted Morgan with a big smile. “He said, ‘OK, kid. Are you ready? We’re going to do this,’” Morgan said. “He made me feel comfortable, like I was one of his own children. I really felt safe in his care. I knew and understood what he was going to do. And for the first time in years, I was hopeful.”
Just two weeks after the procedure at her follow-up appointment, Dr. Clark gave Morgan the OK to resume sports. “Morgan was still a little uneasy about going back to sports. But after a while, she gained confidence in knowing the heart arrhythmias were gone and she could do what she wanted again,” Sally said. “I still worried, but I became comfortable after seeing her exercise and bike ride with me without issue.”
Not only did Dr. Clark restore Morgan’s health, but he also gave her meaningful career advice. “He knew she wanted to be a doctor – and he wanted to make sure she was doing it for the right reasons. He told Morgan that if she’s getting into medicine just for the money, don’t do it because she will be miserable,” Sally said. “He said you want to be a doctor because you have a passion for what you do and helping people. It is obvious he is a doctor for the right reason.”
When Morgan was at a low point in her life, she contacted the local American Heart Association (AHA) chapter to share her story. “I am a private person, so I never wanted anyone to know what was wrong with me,” she admitted. “But then I realized I was not the only one going through something like this. I knew God had a purpose for me – and sitting around was not it. I served as an AHA spokeswoman for six years, talking to grade school and high school students and other groups. It was a truly rewarding experience and a vital part of my healing process.”
Today, Morgan is an active and healthy 23-year-old student who graduated from John Carroll University in May 2017. She now attends the Kent State University College of Podiatric Medicine, working toward a career as a podiatric surgeon, and plays on the medical school’s basketball team. “I can’t play at the level I used to. In going through this journey, I realized a lot of things are more important than sports,” she offered. “I am just thankful I can hike, paddleboard, and still play golf and basketball without risking my health.”
After all Morgan endured with her heart problem, she wouldn’t change a thing. “I had to go through a lot of terrible things, but I wouldn’t change any of it if I had the choice,” she said. “My heart journey has been a blessing. It made me who I am today and guided me to find my career. I got my life back. Now I have the opportunity to help others and make an impact on their lives like Dr. Clark did on mine.”