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Belfast Giants winger Smotherman wants more heart testing after his own 2016 scare


Hitting home: Belfast Giants winger Jordan Smotherman, who plays with a heart condition

Hitting home: Belfast Giants winger Jordan Smotherman, who plays with a heart condition

William Cherry/Presseye

Hitting home: Belfast Giants winger Jordan Smotherman, who plays with a heart condition

Last week, the ice hockey world was rocked when St Louis Blues defenceman Jay Bouwmeester collapsed on the bench in the middle of an NHL game.

Paramedics and team staff from both sides rushed around the 17-year veteran, who had suffered an unexpected cardiac episode, while the world watched on in fear and disbelief.

Fortunately for Bouwmeester, emergency surgery fixed an undiscovered irregular heartbeat and the Blues man is now recovering from what could have been a fatal incident.

For Belfast Giants winger Jordan Smotherman, who heard about the incident the following morning, it really hit home for personal reasons.

"My first year I went to play in Germany (back in 2016), they do mandatory stress tests and they found a problem with my heart," explained the Giants winger.

"So I left Germany because the team voided my contract and I thought my career was over. But I went home, got a second opinion from a doctor and they told me that wasn't the case. I had heart surgery in 2016 to fix it.

"Luckily I had some friends in the Manchester Monarchs, so once I got my all clear I was able to call them and ask if I could join for the rest of the season. That way I was back playing, I was close to home in Boston and the hospitals. By January, everything was back to normal.

"It was a real shock. The doctors said it was one of those things where I could have gone my entire career and it never be an issue. But on the other hand, I could have had that one night where it would have been.

"What happened to Jay... that could have been me."

Fortunately, Smotherman continued his career and has now ended up in Belfast, although he still has to manage his condition through medicine, which he takes daily, and by going for yearly check-ups before the start of each season to make sure it hasn't flared up again.

But the severity of the issue is reflected in that his heart problems went unnoticed for years. The American went through several heart screens prior to participating in NHL camps, none of which picked up his heart defect, something which could be happening to athletes worldwide who have similar conditions.

"They do a regular resting EKG (electrocardiogram) and an ultrasound in the NHL, which in most cases is sufficient. In my case it wasn't," added the 33-year-old, who played for the Atlanta Thrashers between 2007-09. "My heart problem becomes an issue when my heart rate is at a higher level. They can't catch that on a regular EKG."

Even once he thought he had his heart issue under control, it came back, highlighting just how dangerous it continues to be if it goes undiagnosed.

"Before last season, I went for my yearly check-up and the problem had actually come back. The surgery had a very rare reversal. They decided to put me on the medicine, and this was right before I was headed back to Germany to join the team I had failed a medical for before!" laughed Smotherman.

"So they put me on this medicine for two weeks, and the day before my wedding they brought me back in for another test and I passed, thankfully. The meds were doing their job."

Sadly, heart issues are becoming more and more prevalent with athletes. In 2017, footballer Chieck Tiote died of a heart attack on the pitch while in China, while All-Star basketball player Reggie Lewis died of a cardiac arrest while training in 1993.

Without his diagnosis in Germany, it's likely that Smotherman would have been another of those that never would have discovered their issue, putting him at serious risk of suffering a similar, potentially fatal, incident.

The problem of introducing mandatory screening in every league worldwide is the process is not cheap, and outside of the NHL, Germany and the Austrian EBEL, it's a rarity for pre-season exams to take place in leagues.

"It's very important. It's happening to more and more athletes," countered Smotherman.

"There's been basketball players who have had to sit out for similar problems. It's not uncommon among athletes but oftentimes it can go undiagnosed.

"Mine was not a genetic thing, it's just common among top level athletes, hence why I think that testing should be more mandatory around the world."

Belfast Telegraph