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Ashway: Vanderbilt basketball saves a life
Denton Ashway

A sushi dinner almost cost Demi Washington her life.

Vanderbilt basketball saved it.

A year ago, Washington was enjoying her life as a freshman member of the women’s basketball team at Vanderbilt. And then her life and season, like myriad others, were disrupted by COVID-19.

“When the pandemic first hit in March, and Vanderbilt moved to online learning, I went home to Raleigh to live with my parents and my little sister,” Washington wrote in an article published by The Athletic. “I wound up staying for five months.

“It was tough adjusting to college basketball season during my freshman year because it was so much more intense than high school. I thought maybe on some level it was a blessing to give my body a break. And I decided I was going to use the time at home to focus on getting ready for my sophomore season. Since there was really nothing else to do, I was determined to get into the best shape of my life.”

Washington returned to campus in August, living in a dormitory under strict rules designed to limit the spread of the virus. “If I wasn’t going to basketball practice, I was at a class, or I was studying and staying in my room,” she told The New York Times. “I felt like I was really on top of this.”

All went well until one night in early November. Washington ate take-out sushi with a group of friends. The very next day, a member of the group tested positive for the virus.

“Due to contact tracing, I immediately went into a 14-day quarantine at a hotel near campus,” Washington wrote. “Even though I tested negative for the virus, I kept getting tested every other day. On the seventh day, I tested positive. Since I had no symptoms, they ran the test again the next day to make sure it wasn’t a false positive. The second test confirmed I had the virus.”

Washington spent 10 days in isolation, and her symptoms were never any worse than a runny nose. She returned to practice under a plan to gradually increase her participation.

Then Washington received a call from a cardiologist at the Vanderbilt Medical Center. Washington had passed all SEC-mandated post-COVID-19 tests, which included an echogram, an echocardiogram, and a blood workup, before being cleared to return to practice.

But Vanderbilt also requires a Cardiac Magnetic Resonance Imaging exam. It revealed that Washington had acute myocarditis, a disorder of abnormal inflammation of the heart muscle. Viral infection is its most common cause.

Myocarditis is a leading cause of sudden cardiac death among young athletes. Washington was told about Hank Gathers, the Loyola Marymount player who collapsed during a game and died in 1990.

“That’s when it hit home,” Washington told The Times. “It was like, ‘Woah, OK. It’s that severe. This is bad. This is really, really bad.

“I could die.’”

Only the Big Ten and Pac-12 among Power Five conferences require the Cardiac MRI as part of their post-COVID-19 protocols. According to the Myocarditis Foundation, myocarditis is responsible for up to 22% of sudden cardiac deaths in athletes 35 years old and younger.

“There’s this belief that Cardiac MRI is the gold standard for diagnosing myocarditis, and that belief is predicated on the fact that it is the best tool we have for looking for heart injury,” Dr. Aaron Baggish, Director of the Cardiovascular Performance Program as Mass. General Hospital, told the USA Today.

“But it is not a perfect tool. There will be overreads and underreads. That will mean that some athletes will be asked to sit out, and will lose valuable playing time and visibility and, in some cases, even opportunities to participate in drafts, based on an inaccurate read. But that’s the price that we pay for being conservative.”

“I feel that it saved my kid’s life, because she could easily have been back out there on that court playing basketball,” Demi’s mom, Adama, told USA Today. “We definitely want to get the word out about that.”

Demi’s father, Dewayne, played cornerback in the NFL for 12 seasons. He added, “I’m just praying everybody goes to that next level and does the Cardiac MRI. That’s obviously a critical piece.”

There are drawbacks, however. “If we were to do MRIs on every single athlete, we wouldn’t have availability to run MRIs on people that really, truly need it for their clinical questions,” Dr. Dermut Phelan, medical director of Cardiovascular Imaging Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute, told USA Today.

And, according to Phelan, the cost of the Cardiac MRI ranges from $2,500 to $8,500. He told USA Today, “The reality is that we are not seeing [myocarditis] that commonly, and when we are seeing it, it’s generally people that have significant symptoms.”

Two weeks ago, after three months of virtual inactivity, Washington underwent a second Cardiac MRI. The verdict: “Since prior Cardiac MRI, the findings of acute myocarditis have resolved.”

Washington knows what a close call she had. “I know myself,” she told the VUMC Reporter. “If I was back on the court, and my heart was pounding, I would’ve pushed through it. I would have thought I was just out of shape and needed to go harder. This has all been a learning experience and moving forward I will have a better awareness.”