Now that Cooper Taylor is back from heart surgery, back from his version of insanity and on the verge of returning to the safety of Georgia Tech's football team, there is heart-felt color in his recollection.
“It was a difficult day,” said Taylor, a defensive back, when asked if he would be willing to repeat a surgery where he was wired up – inside and out – and half-baked with electro-stimulation for a day in order to play football again.
“If you asked me the next day," he said, "I probably would have said, ‘Hell no.' But now that I’m back in it and getting ready to play again, there’s no way I wouldn’t do it again in a second.”
His mom and dad are back too, recovered from their parental ordeal that began Sept. 17 in Landshark Stadium, when their sophomore son suddenly went missing from the Georgia Tech-Miami game.
“I thought he had got a concussion because he made a tackle on the sideline and didn’t come back,” said Taylor’s father, former Tech quarterback Jim Bob Taylor. “I saw him sitting with doctors.”
A cellphone chirped and Tech director of sports medicine Jay Shoop had news. The head is fine. The heart is not.
A mother’s tale: “I think I blacked out," Robyn Taylor said. "It was one of the worst days of our lives. It scared me to death. We didn’t even know what happened. It scared us totally to death. It came completely out of the blue.”
The next morning, her son was examined at Piedmont Hospital and diagnosed with Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome.
Simply put, WPW stems from the electrical charges between the upper and lower parts of the heart. Wher the normal heart has one pathway for the charges to pass between, WPW patients have an extra. Or extras. When the condition flares, the heart may short-circuit or beat irregularly.
Earlier in the Miami game, “I could not breathe," Cooper said. "My heart rate was really, really, really high for a 19-year old. We punted and I ran down on the punt and my heart started racing and acting funny, kind of uncontrollably.
“I started tapping the top of my helmet, a signal to come out with an injury or equipment [problem]. But after a couple more plays, there was a pass at the sideline and I just stayed out. I don’t remember the last five or six plays.”
In the training room, Shoop and team physician Angelo Gallante ran an electrocardiogram (EKG) -- an electrical recording of the heart – and knew Taylor had an irregular heartbeat. They didn't know why.
His parents were dazed. Cooper had undergone EKGs before. His heartbeat had been irregular on few occasions while he was growing up, including once while he was at a student at Marist School.
“It actually started back in middle school,” he said. “I always just thought it was me being out of shape.”
But nothing had been detected in previous EKG’s. The condition often needs to be diagnosed with the arrhythmia in progress and even then it can be difficult to detect with an EKG.
“The issue with WPW is a very subtle difference on the EKG, so a lot of times even if it’s there, it’s not noticed,” Gallante said. “There might be a difference of .04 second [in a heart rhythm].”
But an irregular heartbeat was obvious on the EKG. The cause was TBD. Mom and dad were nearly TKO.
“Took about 15 minutes to get down,” Jim Bob Taylor said of his trip to the Landshark training room. “Unfortunately, we had three families there. With Robert Hall [who’d suffered a season-ending knee injury] and his family, and with Steven Sylvester [concussion] and his family, it looked like a M*A*S*H unit.
“Cooper had pads off and was sitting there going, ‘I got a problem. My heart wouldn’t stop racing.’ "
Robyn said, “Needless to say, I don’t remember certain details.”
Cooper’s recollection: “Steven was more out of it than me.”
Other defensive player on mend
Tech defensive tackle Logan Walls was diagnosed with WPW in the spring 2008. But is surgery was simpler than Taylor’s.
“Mine was kind of the reason I wasn’t able to come back after just a couple games," Taylor said. "It was supposed to be two-hour surgery and it ended up being eight.”
In WPW corrective surgery, doctors insert a catheter or catheters through an main artery. They begin in the inner groin, manipulate the catheter to the heart and use radio waves to burn away extra tissue that causes the short circuit.
“Burning the tissue is like cutting a wire,” Gallante said.
As part of the highly specialized process, doctors stimulate the heart to test their work and the patient needs to be somewhat alert for the test.
Doctors eventually burned away five extra pathways in Taylor’s heart, passages that typically should have receded during youth. They tested for each one. That meant Cooper was cycled up and down through various states of consciousness while his heart was accelerated and decelerated several times.
“They can’t really put you under full anesthesia because it slows the heart too much,” he said. “I can remember songs that were playing, talking to the doctor about certain bands. I’d pass out and wake up.”
Surgery over, his parents were in the recovery room, wincing as catheters were removed.
“When they pulled them out, his reaction ... if they told him they had to go back and do it again, he’d have said, ‘I don’t want to play again,' ” Taylor’s father said. “He was biting a bullet and it had gone off. Coop’s a tough kid and I am very proud of him."
Taylor had a sore chest, back, leg, pelvis and just about everything else. Plus he had four new “dime-sized holes” in his groin and right thigh.
“It was horrible, awful. I’m just so glad and thankful it is behind us,” Robyn Taylor said. “He was white as a sheet. They had to keep him strapped down for three hours so he couldn't move his head or anything, so he wouldn’t start bleeding. Later, he became violently ill.”
First, though, he held out. Taylor had not eaten for nearly 24 hours and as midnight approached, he desperately wanted to go home. He'd been at the hospital since 7 a.m.
“That bed was made for somebody who’s maybe 5-8 and I’m 6-6, strapped down, legs hanging off, couldn’t move. I’ve grown like two or three inches since I got to Tech,” he said. “I didn’t want to stay overnight. I wasn’t drinking water or anything. I was afraid I’d get sick, lean forward and start bleeding.”
Recovery longer than anticipated
Recovery took longer than first anticipated because doctors had found the extra pathways. The four holes meant Taylor could do almost nothing physical for weeks, doctor's orders.
“I was sedentary,” he said. “It was just kind of a different feeling when, for the first time in your life, I didn’t have playing ball to look forward to. I lost a bunch of weight and getting my leg back to where you can run around and cut -- my game is based on speed -- it took a very long time.”
By November, it became clear that it wouldn’t be worthwhile to resume playing. He would be burning a year of eligibility in order to play a few remaining games at less than full capacity.
“For a while, he was irritated and mad, kind of thinking, ‘I’ve worked so hard and I’m starting and we’re having a great season and it’s all taken away,' ” said his father, who passed for 1,839 yards at Tech in 1982.
Cooper and school officials last week began the process of applying to the NCAA for a medical redshirt year, which, if granted, would leave him with three seasons of eligibility.
Gallante said, “The fact he’s had a procedure does not put him at greater risk” for a future heart episode.
Taylor is excited, too, but said he hasn’t looked at tape of the Miami game yet.
“I don’t really want to. I’m moving past it,” he said. “During the game, it kind of freaked me out because .. what if I could never play again? But the doctors said it was nothing that could kill me. I’m 100 percent good to go. I’ll be back in spring.”