Making Donald Ross Proud: Erik Compton Overcomes Adversity (and Two Heart Transplants) to Compete in the US Open

This week, the center of the golfing universe is centered on Pinehurst, North Carolina as the United States Open Championships get underway on Thursday.  Designed by Donald Ross and frequented by golf legends such as Bobby Jones, Harvie Ward and Ben Hogan, Pinehurst number 2 is an iconic layout for professionals and amateurs alike.  Golf, in general, takes meticulous preparation, dedication, discipline–and for those who are successful at the highest levels–an uncanny ability to battle and overcome adversity.  As a below average amateur golfer, I certainly have a healthy respect for the abilities of PGA professionals.

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These men and women spend countless hours practicing and perfecting swings and are quickly able to assess their own weaknesses and move to correct them in a timely fashion.  The world of sports can teach us many life lessons and can help better prepare us to do battle in our daily lives.  The traits of successful professional golfers are applicable to medicine in many ways.  Sports figures have always been a source of inspiration for me.  This week, one particular golfer in the US Open field should serve as an inspiration for us all—PGA professional Erik Compton’s daily courage and his willingness to overcome any obstacle can help each of us meet even the fiercest medical or business related challenges and provide better care for our patients.

At age 9, Erik Compton was like any other child.  He was active and loved sports.  However, he became ill with a cold like illness (just like many other kids that age).  Unfortunately, Erik’s cold symptoms lingered.  He began to become very short of breath and was no longer able to keep up with other kids his age.  Eventually he was evaluated by a specialist and found to have viral myocarditis and a significantly reduced left ventricular ejection fraction.  After three years of therapy and worsening congestive heart failure, Mr Compton was listed for a heart transplant and in 1999, he received a new heart.  Through hard work, goal minded behavior and dedication, Erik led a relatively normal life through high school and became one of the top ranked amateur golfers in the United States at the high school level.  He was recruited by many universities and attended the University of Georgia on a full athletic scholarship.  As a college golfer, Mr Compton not only battled the numerous golf courses, bunkers, water hazards and the like, but also battled fatigue and swallowed numerous anti-rejection pills each day. He worked his way onto the Nationwide Tour and eventually earned his PGA card.  Unfortunately, Mr Compton suffered a massive myocardial infarction (MI) in 2007 and was left with another cardiomyopathy in his transplanted heart.  While driving himself to the hospital from the golf course, he called his family to say goodbye.  The goodbyes were not to be–six months later, he received a second heart transplant.

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(Photo adapted from http://www.ErikCompton.com)

At this point, many of us would have simply given up.  “Why me?” we might ask.  Instead, Mr Compton embraced his next life challenge.  Within weeks, he began to walk and exercise regularly and he was determined to play competitive golf once again.

Mr Compton battled back from a second heart transplant and ultimately re-joined the PGA Tour.  Last season, he was awarded the inaugural PGA Tour Courage Award.  Two weeks ago, he sunk a putt in a sudden death playoff in order to qualify for the US Open field.  Mr Compton’s story is compelling for many reasons.  As a golfer and transplant survivor, he exhibits unnatural courage under duress.  For patients and physicians, Mr Compton’s example can provide insight into successfully battling disease and should inspire us all to do better with whatever gifts we are given.  I have never heard Mr Compton complain during an interview–rather, he chooses to focus on the positive–the fact that he is able to once again compete on the PGA Tour and he clearly enjoys EVERY single day, EVERY single minute.

Most importantly, Mr Compton’s story should serve as a call to action for all of us–we must do more to raise awareness for organ donations.  Last year, there were more than 4000 persons on the active transplant waiting list–yet only 2600 heart transplants actually occurred.  Every single year, patients die while waiting for an organ.  Factors such as blood type, body size and other immune system antigen compatibilities often determine how quickly patients are able to receive a heart.  Organ donation is simple–in most states it simply requires answering a question on your driver’s license application.  Organ donors are critical to providing life to those with diseases such as Mr Compton.  Fortunately, through innovation and research we have other therapies that can help patients with end stage cardiomyopathies–Left ventricular assist devices (LVADs) can now serve as destination therapy as well as a bridge to transplant in critically ill patients.  Although the artificial heart has not yet panned out as we would have liked, the advent of 3D printing of organs may hold real promise for the future.  However, until we have other solid alternatives, we must continue to raise awareness for organ donations and work to ensure that more people on the transplant list have organs available to them.  As healthcare workers, we must include questions on organ donation as part of our routine office visits in order to ensure that our patients are at least AWARE of the process and can contemplate decisions with their families while they are young and healthy.

Ultimately, many will die while awaiting organs this year.  Patients and families who have donated during times of tragedy are true heroes–they have provided LIFE for others from the hands of tragic and untimely death.  This week, I continue to be amazed at the ability of PGA golfers to tame the beast that is the historic Pinehurst number 2.  I am even more amazed by the fact that Erik Compton is among the field and walking in the footsteps of Donald Ross, Ben Hogan, Harvie Ward and Bobby Jones.  I think each of these golf legends would be quite proud. In fact, I suspect that Donald Ross himself would enjoy a round with Mr Compton—and would likely invite him to sit in the rockers on the world famous porch at the Pinecrest Inn (a legendary hotel in the village of Pinehurst once owned by Mr Ross) after an afternoon walk on Pinehurst Number 2.

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(Image from my personal collection.  Golfers from all over the world come to Pinehurst for a round of golf and recount the day on the course on the porch at the Pinecrest Inn)

 

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