When Kaleb McGary heard his name announced as a first-round pick by the Atlanta Falcons in the 2019 National Football League draft, he had mixed feelings.
“It was an incredible feeling of accomplishment to finally reach my dream of playing in the NFL. A real shock-and-awe experience after years of blood, sweat and tears,” says Kaleb.
In many ways, he’d taken the same path most NFL draftees take: He first became a stand-out high school football star and then moved on to a stand-out career with an NCAA Division I football program. From the outside looking in, it may have looked like Kaleb was leading a charmed life, when really, he experienced many twists and turns that could have easily ended his journey early on, including the loss of his family home and farm in the 2008 recession. Being forced to live in an RV in his grandfather’s yard and change schools, Kaleb was dealing with more than most of his peers. But his biggest obstacle? A heart arrhythmia – an abnormal heartbeat that causes fatigue, shortness of breath and an increased risk for stroke.
Arrhythmia Takes Kaleb Down
The first sign of a problem was in 2013 when he was a junior at Fife High School in Fife, Washington. After fainting while going up for a rebound during a basketball game, Kaleb’s pulse raced at 300 beats per minute. Despite months of doctor’s visits and tests, Kaleb and his parents couldn’t get a diagnosis, and Kaleb was cleared to return to sports.
The problem appeared to be a one-time fluke until 2014. Kaleb, now a college freshman at the University of Washington, experienced symptoms again while practicing for the fall football season.
“I felt weird, like there was a rock bouncing around in my chest,” recalls Kaleb. “I couldn’t breathe and was really tired.”
There were more doctors and more tests, but this time there was a diagnosis: Atrial fibrillation. AFib, as it’s also known, is a problem with the heart’s electrical signals that causes the upper part of the heart (the right and left atria) to be out of sync with one another. Instead of beating effectively to move blood, the atria quiver and produce an erratic, often rapid, pulse.
People with AFib are five to seven times more likely to have a stroke. And, left untreated, the condition can weaken your heart and even lead to heart failure in some cases.
With medication to keep the AFib in check, he was able to do what he came to do: Play football. But at the end of his first season, it became clear that an ablation – a minimally invasive procedure that restores the heart’s normal rhythm – was needed.
During ablation, a physician inserts a catheter into a blood vessel through a small incision in the groin and guides it to the heart. Using the catheter, the physician scars the tiny area of tissue causing the abnormal signals. If successful, the heart returns to a normal rhythm, as Kaleb’s did. However, in some cases, an arrhythmia can return.
Unfortunately, in 2015, an arrhythmia did develop, but this time, a different type in a different area of Kaleb’s heart. He underwent another ablation to correct idiopathic ventricular tachycardia, a rapid heartbeat caused by misfiring electrical signals in the lower chambers of the heart.
Still in the Game
A successful procedure and a strong finish to his college career kept Kaleb’s dreams of playing in the NFL alive. During the NFL’s scouting combine – a four-day job interview for top football players eligible for the draft – Kaleb underwent a level of scrutiny that most prospects don’t: He had to prove he had the athletic skills teams were looking for and had a healthy heart, too.
“Of course, the heart stuff came up,” says Kaleb. “Everybody said other than that, I might have been the healthiest person in the draft.”
The Falcons were among the teams most interested in him. “We knew about Kaleb’s history,” says Jonathan Kim, MD, a sports cardiologist at Emory Healthcare, the Falcons’ official health care provider.
“I reviewed his medical records and thought in detail about the testing and procedures he’d endured in the past – and ultimately determined he had every right to move forward with the draft process.”
That was the green light Kaleb and the Falcons needed. He joined the team in training camp that summer, assuming his heart problems were in his rearview mirror. Until they weren’t.
During camp at the end of July, Kaleb had a replay of symptoms: dizziness, difficulty breathing, exhaustion – and all even more pronounced than before. He went by ambulance to Emory University Hospital and learned he had ventricular tachycardia again.
“I felt like I was built for football, that God had made me to be able to play this sport,” says Kaleb. “So, it was hard to accept being brought down by an irregular heartbeat.”
But he didn’t stay down for long. Dr. Kim and Emory Healthcare cardiologist David DeLurgio, MD, worked together to create a new treatment plan to get Kaleb back out on the field. It included another ablation, along with time off to let the treated area heal.
“I went from doing everything to doing nothing,” says Kaleb. “Literally nothing. That was tough. I wasn’t allowed to even sweat.”
But the doctors’ approach worked. Kaleb gradually worked his way back to practice and, after three weeks, was cleared to participate in full contact again.
“He responded nicely, has been able to exercise normally and hasn’t experienced any recurrence of his symptoms,” says Dr. DeLurgio.
Kaleb was named the Falcons’ starting right tackle and started all 16 games of his rookie season. He credits his close-knit family and his faith for helping him overcome the obstacles that could have derailed his plans. He also credits Emory Healthcare for providing the care and support that allowed him to keep his dream of playing in the NFL alive.
“It’s really helped to have people I can call at any time with my questions and concerns. There’s always been someone willing to help. You know, when you have a good support system, the world’s the limit, man.”
Emory Heart & Vascular Center
Emory Heart & Vascular Center brings together more than 175 physicians, offering comprehensive medical and surgical treatments for the full range of heart and vascular conditions. The Center includes 18 specialized programs in cardiology, cardiac surgery, vascular surgery and cardiovascular imaging.
We see patients at six hospitals with more than 23 community locations. Depending on your need, we can see you as early as the next day.
To make an appointment or find a provider near you, call 404-778-7777.