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Screening revives track career -- and possibly saves life

Deirdre Capozzoli, left, sits with her son Tyler,

Deirdre Capozzoli, left, sits with her son Tyler, center, inside the office of Sean G. Levchock, M.D.'s, right. (May 25, 2012) Credit: Steve Pfost

Tyler Capozzoli would finish his 200-meter burst weary, his breathing heavy and his energy spent. And then he'd look around.

"My teammates, I was always more tired than them," he said. "I'd be exhausted and they'd be walking around."

But Capozzoli, now 17, was almost used to it at that point. Others would run to the beat of sneakers hitting pavement. But Capozzoli's soundtrack, even for short races, was the inhale and exhale of his own labored breath.

"Sometimes, I would do jumps and stuff, because I wasn't fast," Capozzoli said. "They would throw me in the long jump or the high jump because, it would be like, yeah, we don't want to run him."

This was just the way it was, he figured. He'd been running track since kindergarten and conditioned with the best of them, but just maybe he lacked a natural gift.

As it turned out, what the Kellenberg senior actually needed to go faster was a little more heart.

 

An abnormal screening

Capozzoli admits to rolling his eyes when his mom, Deirdre, a nurse at Roslyn's St. Francis Hospital, dragged him in for a free heart screening. The volunteer program, now in its third year, services about 300 to 500 student-athletes a year, all in the hopes of preventing deaths like that of Wes Leonard, the Michigan high school basketball player who suffered cardiac arrest and died after making the game-winning shot in March, 2011.

Still, she didn't expect the nurses -- her coworkers -- to be calling her son's name after the tests. Though Capozzoli's electrocardiogram came back normal, Dr. Sean Levchuck had detected a defect in his echocardiogram results. The lifelong runner had a hole between the two upper chambers of his heart.

"I was shocked," Deirdre said. "I really didn't think there was anything wrong with him."

Untreated, Capozzoli would suffer from a prematurely aging heart that was working 50 to 60 times harder than it needed to be, Levchuck said. By his 20s or 30s, "you'd say why would someone this age have all these kinds of problems," he added. "But a lot of the damage would be completely irreversible . . . . an enlargement, or an arrhythmia that could lead to heart failure, things like that."

Shortly after, Levchuck, the hospital's chairman of pediatric cardiology, got to work. Using a catheter the "size of a cocktail straw," he fed a patch up Capozzoli's vein and to his heart. The recovery, Levchuck said, was almost instant.

"I wasn't as much nervous as excited," Capozzoli said. "He told me I was going to be faster."

That was 18 months ago. Levchuck was right.

 

"A revelation"

Capozzoli said that, on average, he's shaved eight seconds from his 400 time (from 58 seconds to 50), 33 seconds from his 800 time (from 2:30 to 1:57) and, in cross country, two minutes off his 4K time (from 16 minutes to 14 minutes).

He now has a partial scholarship to run at Molloy College in the fall. Before that, he will run the first leg for Kellenberg's 4x800 relay team at the national championship next weekend in North Carolina. In March, his relay team came in third in the New Balance National Championship at the Armory with a time of 7:43.84, breaking a 47-year-old state Catholic school record. Because of that, Capozzoli and his team are high school All-Americans.

The list of wins doesn't stop there. His relay team took first in the U.S. Open at Madison Square Garden in 8:07.40 and at Boston's New Balance Grand Prix in 7:55.67. There have been smaller races, too -- victories that just two years ago would have seemed impossible for Capozzoli.

"We always thought he could be really good and it was mysterious why he wasn't better," said Kellenberg coach Kevin Buckley. "It seemed like the further he went, the worse he was. He always had decent speed, but the aerobic part of it really helped him.

"He's a good competitor, so it's a revelation, but it's not a revelation," he said.

For his part, Capozzoli has rediscovered the joy of running on the way to discovering the joy of winning. His 4x800 relay team won the CHSAA intersectional on May 26.

"Winter was the best season," he said of his indoor track team. "We just went off . . . and I felt so much better. I wasn't as tired. And I wasn't even close to being on the relay team."

It does, of course, go beyond faster times. Levchuck estimates they've discovered about 30 student-athletes with serious cardiac issues, and five of those still are being monitored. The screenings are offered to students from ninth to 12th grade and detect around 99 percent of underlying heart problems, Levchuck said. They break for the summer and will host another round in October.

As for Tyler, there'll be no more eye-rolling from him. "It was a lot more fun when I got back," he said. "Just go do it."

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