It’s an image immortalized in sports history: Loyola Marymount basketball player Hank Gathers turning his back to the camera, tilting to his left while continuing to walk, then falling over.
Gathers collapsed on March 4, 1990, in the first half of his team’s game against Portland, just after scoring on an alley-oop dunk that put Loyola up by 12 points.
He was declared dead 30 minutes later at the age of 23. An autopsy found that he suffered from cardiomyopathy, a heart-muscle disorder.
Three years ago, current Gainesville High sophomore LeeAnn Noble was in New York, celebrating Christmas with her mother’s family.
At the time, Noble ran cross country and track for Gainesville Middle School, so she considered it odd when she became breathless after walking up a hill.
“I was pretty athletic,” Noble said. “But when I was walking up the hill I thought, ‘Wow, I’m really out of shape, I need to run more.’
“But it turns out ...” she said, her voice trailing off.
It turned out that four weeks and an instinctive pediatrician later, then 12-year-old Noble was being prepped for heart transplant surgery. Her doctors had found that she suffered from the same disorder that killed Gathers.
With a new, but healthy heart and a will to not just survive but thrive, Noble is a sophomore in high school this year and president of her class, a post she also held as a freshman.
She recently made the varsity football cheerleading squad for this coming fall after serving on the junior varsity for two years, and is a member of the Red Elephants girls golf team that will play for a state title Monday.
“She has limitations, but instead of being ‘woe is me,’ she doesn’t let the transplant dictate who she is,” Noble’s mother, Carol Anne Gelderman, said. “She’s amazing.”
“LeeAnn is a precious, hard-working young lady who has overcome some major health obstacles and is more active than the majority of students her age,” said Gainesville cheerleading coach and student council sponsor Helen Perry.
“Her story is so inspiring.”
'I gasped for breath — and yet the officers heard it not'
Snow was on the ground in New York during Christmas 2005, so Noble and her family participated in outdoor activities not frequently available in Georgia.
It was no surprise to Gelderman when she caught a cold, nor when her daughter showed symptoms of the same affliction.
“She had nasal congestion, difficulty breathing and was coughing,” Gelderman said. “But it was nothing that alerted us to anything.”
The day they returned home to Gainesville, however, Noble began vomiting.
“We took her to Quick Care where they assessed her and felt she had an upper respiratory infection,” Gelderman said. “So they gave her antibiotics to combat it.”
The day Noble finished her week’s worth of antibiotics, the vomiting resumed.
A return trip to Quick Care brought no relief, nor did the medicine given Noble to soothe her stomach. With her daughter still having trouble breathing and having not eaten anything substantial for a week, Gelderman decided it was time to see Dr. Cathryn Finch, Noble’s pediatrician.
“We were in (Dr. Finch’s office) for about an hour,” Gelderman said. “She said that something didn’t sound right so she sent us to the hospital for a chest X-ray.”
From that X-ray, it was deduced that Noble had pneumonia, but upon hearing that her patient was still vomiting, Dr. Finch’s instincts took over.
She dropped by the hospital to have a look at the X-ray herself, and immediately called Gelderman to tell her that the next morning, her daughter would be seeing a cardiologist.
The X-ray showed that Noble’s heart was enlarged to the point of causing minor alarm for an adult, but major alarm to the doctor of a 12-year-old.
“That night was a pretty scary night because LeeAnn’s condition got pretty bad,” Gelderman said. “It was like she would stop breathing for a while and then start back.”
At 8 a.m. Jan. 18, 2006, Gelderman and Noble made the trek to Gwinnett. After an echocardiogram and an EKG, Gelderman was told that her daughter was suffering from cardiomyopathy, an enlarged heart, and was very sick.
The signs of the disease
According to the American Heart Association, cardiomyopathy is considered the most common cause of sudden death in young athletes.
It’s a disease of the heart muscle and there are three main types — dilated, hypertrophic and restrictive — all of which affect the heart muscle, often making it difficult to pump blood and deliver it to the rest of the body.
Symptoms are breathlessness with exertion or even at rest, swelling of the legs, ankles and feet, bloating of the abdomen with fluid and irregular heartbeats that feel rapid, pounding or fluttering.
People with cardiomyopathy are often at risk of arrhythmia or sudden cardiac death or both.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 100,000 young athletes die each year from all cardiovascular disorders, including cardiomyopathy, while participating in sports. That is twice as many who die in auto accidents.
It can be treated with medication, surgically implanted devices or, in severe cases, a heart transplant.
‘The heart beat on with a muffled sound’
Noble was immediately admitted to the intensive care unit at Egleston Children’s Hospital, now Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.
“What they thought was pneumonia was fluid that had built up because her heart was failing,” Gelderman said.
After being stabilized on intravenous medication, Noble was moved to a regular room at the hospital. She and her mother were told that weaning her off the IV immediately was needed to assess the severity of her condition.
Twice the doctors attempted it, and twice, Noble crashed.
“She wasn’t able to walk or eat and her heart didn’t improve,” Gelderman said. “The only time she functioned properly was on the IV.”
It was three weeks into her stay at Egleston that Noble and her mother were told that her only option was a heart transplant.
“It was really scary,” Noble said. “They said originally that it was a 1 percent chance I’d need a transplant. It was shocking, but there was no other way around it.”
Whether the naivete of childhood played a role, or just the bliss of ignorance, Noble’s spirits didn’t sink.
In fact, the once-active 12-year-old would hold her breath, causing a straight line on the heart monitor that brought the nurses rushing in. She would then exhale and share a laugh with the medical staff while the steady “beep beep” started again.
“From the very beginning, she’s always been positive,” Gelderman said. “At the time we didn’t know what was going to happen or why it was happening, but we will one day, and that was enough to keep her positive.”
In a week’s time after getting the news, Noble and her family met with social workers, clergy and financial planners. They were told that the average wait time for a heart was two months, and that Noble would be hospitalized in the meantime.
In a twist of irony, however, the same reason Noble needed a heart transplant put her at the top of the list to get one: Her functionality was dependent upon IV medication.
“We were put on the list at 5 p.m. and I got a call at 9 p.m.,” Gelderman said.
“We thought it was family,” Noble said. “Mom started freaking out and I had no idea what she was doing.
“She kept pointing at the phone and beating her chest and then she yelled, ‘You have a heart!’”
Noble’s new heart arrived at Egleston by noon the next day. It was in her body 24 hours after she’d been put on the list.
‘The noise steadily increased’
Just before 6 a.m. the morning after her heart transplant, Noble squeezed her mother’s hand twice.
She had been sedated since her surgery ended and was on a breathing machine, able to get off both only on doctor’s orders.
“We had come up with a sign,” Gelderman said. “‘I love you’ was two squeezes and she did it.”
Noble’s nurses chalked it up to reflexes, but after the new heart recipient gave her mother the sign twice more, it was no longer considered a twitch.
“When they let me wake up, my head was swimming,” Noble said. “I wasn’t used to having a heart that was that active.
“I could feel my body bouncing.”
Despite being in immense pain and on heavy medication, Noble knew only two things would get her out of the hospital: Walking and eating.
So two days after her surgery, Noble got up and walked, then ate a little something and was able to keep it down for the first time in well over a month.
“A nurse came in and told me that if I didn’t try to walk and eat, the I might be in the hospital for a long time,” she said. “Him saying that made me really try because I didn’t want to be there any more.”
After a month at Children’s Healthcare, and a week after heart transplant surgery, Noble and her family left to spend time at a recovery facility called the Mason House on Emory University’s campus. It was there that Noble literally got her feet under her and learned her limitations, and lack thereof.
After a week, she was told she could go home, a place she hadn’t seen in quite some time.
‘The Tell-Tale Heart’
For the rest of her life, Noble will take an aspirin a day, along with blood pressure and cholesterol medication, magnesium and an array of pills that combined make up immuno suppressants.
She’s more susceptible to illness. A two-day cold for most could be a two-week trial for her. She has to worry about things like sodium intake and making sure she gets a job out of college that includes good health benefits, because she’ll be a costly client.
“She looked at me one day and said, ‘I’m not going to live as long as you,’” Gelderman said. “But medical technology will improve, so you never know. We’re optimistic.”
She has no active nerves going to her heart so feeling adrenaline isn’t an issue, but not being able to feel a heart attack is.
Yet Noble, by all other accounts, is a normal teenager who enjoys slumber parties, school dances and being an active member of Gainesville’s class of 2011.
Gelderman admits that after arriving home, her instinct originally was to smother her daughter, making sure she was always in sight and in contact.
But Noble returned to school two weeks later, and it was then that Gelderman realized the bigger picture set up by the inability to follow her daughter to class.
“We made the decision to get a new heart for LeeAnn so she could live the fullest life,” Gelderman said, “and have quality of life.
“We’re not going to be there every minute to ask how much sodium she’s had, so we take care of teaching her what she can and can’t do now so that when she’s not around she can live fully.
“Otherwise what we did doesn’t mean anything.”
And living fully is exactly what Noble does and intends to do, regardless of the knowledge that the stability she’s lived with since getting a new heart could be rattled at any minute.
“Every now and then I think, ‘I’m actually alive,’” Noble said. “But most times I forget, which sounds weird. But it doesn’t cross my mind that much other than that it’s over.
“It’s just my life.”