At 18, James Cooper was a disciplined student with a lifelong dream of becoming a firefighter. He was also a competitive basketball player and precisely the picture of good health and fitness that Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy (HCM) has been known to shatter.
“The first presentation of HCM is often death on the playing field, according to Dr. Euan Ashley, Director of the Stanford Hospital HCM Center. Through a fortunate series of what James’ mother, Paulette Cooper, calls “opportunities to listen,” James’ abnormal EKG test results were eventually sent to the Stanford team who diagnosed James with HCM. Mrs. Cooper then recalled stories about family members who may have had HCM, given their early and sudden deaths.
This disquieting family history, combined with James’ repeatedly abnormal EKG tests, prompted the decision to implant a defibrillator to help prevent his heart from suddenly stopping.
Dr. Ashley says that ending James’ dream of being a firefighter and blocking him from competitive sports were among the hardest decisions he has made. A life-altering diagnosis affects a patient’s entire family.
“Seeing him sitting on the bench was devastating,” Mrs. Cooper recalls. Dr. Ashley says James would plead to be allowed to do some sit ups, or run up the stairs—anything. “He missed the buzz of sports. I understand. I like to play basketball too,” Dr. Ashley said. James now considers Dr. Ashley’s handling of the situation to have been especially helpful. “He never made me feel like he was taking anything away from me,” James says. “He explained everything. He gave me choices.” His mother also is grateful to the Stanford HCM Center for “walking us through everything. We established a relationship with them and any questions we had, we got answers. Having everyone in one place meant a lot to me. They helped put my fears to rest.”
Not long ago, James reflected on why he had wanted to be a firefighter since he was four years old. He had wanted always to be brave and help others. Given that HCM is among the stealthiest of cardiac ailments, he suddenly felt lucky to be alive and have a chance to redirect his goals. He felt a surge of gratitude to family and friends for helping him through the darkest days. He appreciated Dr. Ashley for gently coaching him through a difficult season.
The help he received at Stanford, not only physically, but also emotionally and intellectually, transformed James. Dr. Ashley’s commitment to excellence, compassion and fair play is exactly what James expects of himself and the essence of his career goals. James will soon transfer to UC Santa Cruz, where he plans to major in Health Sciences. And, inspired by a new role model, he hopes to pursue a career in medicine.