Unleashed: The Amazing Life Of Kayla Burt
Feb. 8, 2012
By Gregg Bell - UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - Kayla Burt was technically dead nine years ago.
The 20-year-old Huskies guard in uniform No. 20 and a blonde ponytail that belied her intensity on the court was unconscious and face down in the bedroom of her off-campus home in Seattle. Her heart was stopped for five minutes on New Year's Eve, 2002
"I was clinically dead," Burt said. "It was essentially over for me."
Thanks to frantic but heroic teammates and quick, steady paramedics that night, Burt is plenty alive now. That's despite statistics that show 95 percent of victims of cardiac arrest die before they reach a hospital or other emergency help reaches them. It's despite the coma she lapsed into following the unexplained horror of technically dying.
Burt was speaking breezily to me - astounding me, really - on Tuesday at a café at in Seattle's Green Lake neighborhood.
The unusually clear winter sky wasn't all that was sunny that morning.
Burt turned 29 in November. She looks like she's going on 23. She's tall, fit, smiling, strikingly ebullient and outgoing. She's engaging, laughing and seemingly carefree.
So full of, well ... life.
She's not about to apologize for it, either.
"This is who I am," she said, tapping below her right shoulder and above her chest.
That's where she's had a defibrillator surgically implanted. The device that will remain inside her for the rest of her life to regulate her heart's rhythm.
That is part of who Burt is, yes.
But so is this:
She's really a saint - and a dynamo -- disguised in blue jeans and a cardigan.
She has given up her job as an assistant basketball coach at the University of Portland and then as an EMT in South King County to fulfill what she sees as her calling. She is the outreach coordinator for the Hope Heart Institute for cardiovascular research and education based in the Seattle suburb of Bellevue. Burt educates and inspires young athletes, their parents, everyday people, anyone who will lend a minute of his or her time to hear how cardiac failure is the leading killer of young people in this country.
She recently worked with the Nick of Time Foundation to have more than 300 automated external defibrillators (AEDs) placed inside Seattle-area schools. She and colleagues at her non-profit, privately supported Hope Heart recently worked to get free blood-pressure and electrocardiogram screenings for more than 400 high-school athletes in Seattle Public Schools.
"I think my cardiologist may beg to differ, but I don't have any restrictions," she said, laughing again.
"It's not to the point where if I go for a run, `Hey, I'm going to try to get first place.' But I do run. I play basketball. I lift. I go skiing. I just went on a 23-mile bike ride on Saturday. I do everything. I don't hold anything back. So I'm always doing something. I can't sit still very long.
"My mom is like, `Do you ever sit still and do nothing?' I'm like, `No.' I get bored."
Any wonder her Facebook page features a picture of a large, homemade, "Live in the Moment" sign in white block letters over a black, colored-in background?
On this Tuesday, she is heading from her home in West Seattle through our hour-long chat to her office in Bellevue. There she finalized plans for a benefit event for donors to Hope Heart Friday night at Seattle's Paramount Theater. She also prepared for a talk for which she was going to drive to Ellensburg later Tuesday, to give to students and young athletes. There the native of Arlington, Wash., told her amazing story the umpteenth time, wowing countless more who can't fathom how she stole such a giving life from certain death.
And Burt is the spirit and force behind the "Dawgs Take Heart" night Thursday at the Huskies' 7 p.m. home game against Oregon. Washington's women's team has done multiple "pink games" to raise awareness for breast cancer, but this is the first time UW has hosted a "red" night for heart disease.
It's happening because Burt approached Huskies director of basketball operations Megan Osmer and Ryan Madayag, UW's director of marketing and game-day experience, last summer and proposed the idea. Today's Huskies eagerly pounced on it like a loose ball in the open floor.
Burt, Washington's leader in scoring and assists in 2004-05 - while playing with a defibrillator in her chest, I'll get to that in a minute - will talk to this season's Huskies after their shootaround Thursday afternoon.
"It will be good... to remind our players that you never know what can happen - and to take advantage of every day they get to suit up in a Huskies uniform."
"Just to share her story. Many of our players are too young to remember Kayla's playing days," Osmer said. "It will be good for them to hear it, for her to remind our players that you never know what can happen - and to take advantage of every day they get to suit up in a Huskies uniform.
"She is just so calm about everything. It's been pretty cool getting to work with her on this."
Huskies players will be wearing red laces in their game shoes Thursday night. Coaches and staff members will be wearing red (NCAA rules prohibit the players from wearing uniforms that are not a team's primary team color, though exceptions have been made for pink and breast cancer). Nurses will be stationed at four tables in the concourse outside the Alaska Airlines Arena seating bowl offering free blood-pressure screening and information on heart health.
The purpose of UW's night won't be lost on Oregon. The Ducks' coach is Paul Westhead. He was the coach at Loyola Marymount on March 4, 1990, when LMU star Hank Gathers collapsed on the court and died during a game of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, an enlargement of the heart muscle which makes it difficult for blood to pass easily and causes irregular, potentially fatal heartbeats.
"A lot of people don't know the numbers, but heart failure is the number-one killer in this country," Burt explained. "It's more than the next four factors combined."
Statistics show a young, seemingly healthy athlete suffers sudden cardiac arrest every three days in the United States. The Heart Rhythm Foundation says that sudden cardiac arrest kills someone every two minutes in this country.
It didn't kill Kayla Burt.
AMAZINGLY, STILL UNDIAGNOSED
Despite countless tests from Seattle to Minnesota to Italy and back, she still doesn't know why she went into cardiac arrest while getting ready for bed a few minutes before midnight on New Year's Eve nine years ago, while seven of her teammates were downstairs at her house watching television.
"I'm still undiagnosed, which is crazy," she told me, while cradling and sipping a cup of Americano from across a small wooden table at Irwin's Café near Green Lake. "Mine is idiopathic: I collapsed and they don't know why. It's been nine years. Nine years! And I've gone undiagnosed.
"I keep thinking I'm going to get a diagnosis -- one day."
Being undiagnosed following cardiac arrest is even rarer than surviving it -- especially after, as Burt put it, "I've had every test done to me."
EKGs. Stress tests. Echocardiograms. Checks across her family tree.
"My blood was even tested genetically in Italy for six months," she said.
Still, doctors halfway around the world have found no cause for why her heart suddenly stopped beating nine years and one month ago.
I asked her how scary it is to be undiagnosed.
"I don't know," she said. "It's a weird feeling, because I don't feel different. I don't feel anything really happened.
"I mean, it did happen, and I try to use it as a positive platform to really help other people. Because it is a unique position that I am in. It's like this crazy, tragic thing happened - but it's also the best thing that's ever happened to me. It's enabled me to reach out to other families who might have lost a young person to sudden cardiac arrest, families who are grieving. Or even other survivors.
"I have a lot of survivor friends. A lot of times when you are a young survivor you feel like you are all alone - there's nobody like me that's my age that's gone through this. But there is."
Burt says "that's what's most special about it."
"But as far as how I feel, it's not like anyone can see me walking down the street and say, `Oh my gosh! That girl had cardiac arrest!'"
She calls the lack of diagnosis, the questions over whether it will happen again, "kind of bittersweet."
"I feel physically fine. Everything's fine. So, I'm just going to keep living."
"I live a normal life," she said. "I feel physically fine. Everything's fine. So, I'm just going to keep living."
LUCK AMID HORROR
Burt and her teammates had a normal, three-hour practice into the afternoon of Dec. 31, 2002, then Burt lifted weights. After that she drove to a movie store and for some food, then hosted eight teammates at her house in the Northgate section of Seattle. She can remember that New Year's Eve up until about 8:30 p.m., when she was watching a movie in her living room with her pals. She last remembers goofing around, putting her bare feet in teammates' hair.
She was trying to make it to midnight, but Huskies coach June Daugherty, unhappy with practice that day, had called an 8 a.m. workout the following morning. So Burt went up to brush her teeth and get ready for bed at about 11:15.
About five minutes later, she sat down on her bed. Teammate Loree Payne was the only other person in the room. Burt told Payne without much urgency that she felt a bit light headed. Seconds later, she had fallen off the bed, unconscious and face down on the floor.
A panicked Payne called her teammates from downstairs for help. When they rolled Burt over her eyes had rolled back into her head. She was purple and completely lifeness.
The Huskies sprang into frantic action. One rushed to call 9-1-1. Leading scorer Giuliana Mendiola, the 2002-03 Pac-10 player of the year who was then nine days shy of her 21st birthday, pressed down repeatedly on Burt's chest while Mendiola's sister Gionconda, another teammate, clumsily tried mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on Burt.
The sisters weren't certified in CPR. But so what? Their teammate, their friend, was dying in front of them. Was actually already dead, technically.
"They just basically went off what they had seen on TV or in the movies," Burt said, relaying to me what she was told later.
Turns out, the Mendiolas made the assists of their lives. They were successful in keeping some semblance of pumping of Burt's blood until the paramedics arrived within 5 minutes take over.
While the Mendiolas were doing all they could to keep Burt from completely dying, freshman Nicole Castro moved her furniture to clear space for the paramedics to work. The Mendiolas' heroics in particular is another lesson Burt now shares with the many she talks to about cardiac arrest and responding to it.
"Some people are afraid to do CPR... I tell them, `Look, nothing you are going to do is going to hurt this person. They are dead.'"
"Some people are afraid to do CPR. They are scared they are going to break a person's ribs or hurt them somehow," she says. "I tell them, `Look, nothing you are going to do is going to hurt this person. They are dead.'"
Burt has heard from others who have watched a cardiac episode but not actively jumped to actively aid because they did not want to try mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on a stranger. So Burt and her Hope Heart Institute are teaching compression-only CPR, featuring only the chest pumps like the ones the Mendiolas did to keep Burt clinging to hope.
Tragedies - and triumphs, for that matter - often contain key coincidences that improbably link together to create the event.
For Burt, "it was just one of things you feel there is some sort of intervention."
The divine kind.
What if it wasn't Dec.31 when her heart stopped? Had it been any other night of the basketball season, she would have probably been alone in her house preparing for her next, regular day. Because it was New Year's Eve and they were together watching a movie, Burt had a half dozen teammates there to respond to her crisis.
And, as Burt says, "If it wasn't New Year's Eve I'm probably already asleep after 11 o'clock, and my heart stops beating (while alone) in my sleep."
Instead, Payne was right there when she collapsed to respond and, as Burt says, "essentially save my life."
What if Burt wasn't living at the time just off three major thoroughfares in North Seattle about a mile from Seattle Fire Station 31 on Northgate Way between Interstate 5 and Highway 99? What if she lived amid side streets, or further north, south, east or west? Paramedics would from that station would not have arrived within five minutes.
"I will forever be indebted to Station 31. I love those guys," Burt says.
A mile further from a fire station would have meant four or five more minutes from the medics arriving. And Burt would not have been sitting in that café across from me on Seattle's sunny Tuesday morning.
"They say that every minute you go without medical attention for cardiac arrest exponentially increases your likelihood of not surviving," she told me.
And check this out: Michelle Perkins played basketball for the Huskies in 1994-95. She was inside Station 31 that night as an EMT on duty. Burt still laughs over how Perkins was notorious among those in the fire station for being hard to wake up for nighttime calls. Perkins was groggy and stumbling around the station momentarily that night -- until she became startled by colleagues yelling, "Yeah, this is a `Medic- 7' cardiac-arrest call! Let's go!"
BURT'S LIFE IS NOT THE ONLY ONE CHANGED
Perkins and her fellow EMTs shocked Burt out of what is called ventricular fibrillation back into a normal sinus rhythm. She lay in that state while in a coma for the next 15 hours at UW Medical Center.
"I had just gotten back from Sun Bowl (with the Huskies football team) when I got the call just after midnight that Kayla was in ER," said Dr. Kim Harmon, the director of the UW Primary Care Sports Medicine Fellowship and clinic.
She has been a Huskies team physician since 1998, and remains one of the Huskies' doctors that travel with teams and sit at their benches during games. She will be doing that Thursday night, wearing red as the "Dawgs Take Heart."
"I was pregnant with my youngest son at the time. That's how I know how old he is, by what happened to Kayla," Harmon, a former basketball player for Notre Dame and a UW team physician since 1998, told me over the phone between seeing patients Wednesday.
"What happened to Kayla, you remember it. Is it life-changing."
"What happened to Kayla, you remember it. Is it life-changing."
When Burt awoke inside UW Medical Center after being in a coma for 15 hours on Jan. 1, 2003, she was ticked off that she had a tube stuck down her throat. She had no idea why she was in an intensive-care unit instead of on the basketball floor.
When she got rid of all the tubes as was able to speak, her first words were, "When's practice?"
Six days later, UW doctors put an Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator (ICD) in Burt's chest to shock her heart back to a normal rhythm should another arrhythmia occur with her heart.
While in the hospital, Burt got letters and cards from all over the world.
"I even got letters from prison," she said.
Swarms of media - including the nationally syndicated pop-culture television show "Inside Edition" -- were there when Burt returned to watch from the bench as the Huskies hosted Arizona State nine days after she collapsed.
Burt was finally diagnosed in 2003 in Seattle with Long QT syndrome, a heart rhythm disorder that can cause dangerously fast and erratic heart beats. So she could be completely sure what that meant for the rest of her life, she ultimately visited the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota to see a leading expert on cardiac arrest.
Her mother Teri, a wound-care nurse at Cascade Valley Hospital in Arlington, north of Everett and father Ken a union man, now in the glass business after having worked construction for decades, also wanted closure for their daughter. (He and Kayla's mom have been married for 34 years. For the last 24 years, they've lived in the same house in which Kayla grew up).
The Mayo Clinic stunned the Burts by determining she didn't have Long QT syndrome. In fact, he didn't see any causing condition that should have prompted her cardiac failure. As far as one of the top cardiologists at a world-renowned clinic was concerned, Burt could resume playing basketball.
"Let me finish what I started," Burt then asked UW athletic director Todd Turner, who was four days into his new job at the time. Turner had been consulting with his predecessor, interim AD Dick Thompson, over Burt's situation.
After a season and a half away, after intense discussions with UW's medical, legal and athletic-department staffs, Burt got that chance. In the fall of 2004, she returned as a junior - with a defibrillator surgically implanted between her chest and right shoulder. She was believed to be the only Division-I athlete playing with a pacemaker.
"The question wasn't really at the time whether or not she was going to play basketball. She was already playing again in pickup games and in the summer," said Harmon, who was among those advising Burt, her family and UW over her possible return to competition. "It was whether she was going to play basketball again for U-Dub.
"The easiest thing for U-Dub would have been to say, `She can't play.' It was a really hard decision that we said she could play, and it was sort of brave of U-Dub. But it was ultimately what she wanted, and we still didn't know the cause. At that point, we were going into it with the assumption that it wasn't going to happen again."
Burt led the Huskies in scoring and assists while playing 29 of UW's 30 games in that '04-05 season. Her return was as inspirational as it was astounding.
Literally, she was back from the dead, playing college basketball.
Then, get this: Burt's pacemaker got recalled by its manufacturer.
I mean, what else?
Turns out, batteries were inexplicably failing in some models the same as Burt's. So she had another surgery after that '04-'05 season, to get a new defibrillator installed.
She was 15 games into her fifth, senior season early in 2006, sitting on the bench during the first media timeout early in a home game against UCLA, when he was jolted in a team huddle by an electric charge. Her teammates and a horrified Daugherty, who had been nervously monitoring Burt for 44 games now upon her unprecedented return, asked what was wrong.
Burt had no idea that the defibrillator had been activated by sensing an irregular beat in her heart. It's not like she'd ever felt a defibrillator go off before.
Dr. Harmon and a team trainer took Burt from the bench to the tunnel that leads to the Huskies' locker room. While they examined Burt there, the defibrillator went off again, jolting all three women.
"I knew right then. I said, `I'm done,'" Burt said. "And I was totally at peace. I wasn't upset, or feeling I got robbed of my playing career.
"I got to do something I was told I would never be able to do again."
She takes a daily dose of beta-blocker drugs to regulate her heart rhythm. She sees a nurse every four months for checkups, and her cardiologist every eight months. In a few months, she will have another surgery. The shelf-life on her pacemaker is about up, so doctors will be replacing it with a new device.
"They actually stop your heart," she said, as my jaw dropped toward the floor for about the 10th time in our hour of talking.
Yep, she'll technically be clinically dead again, as doctors insert a new defibrillator.
"I have to sign a waiver and everything," she said, as nonchalantly as if she was getting a filling put in one of her teeth.
She will go through the same routine about every seven years for the rest of her life as she replaces defibrillators.
As she says, "It's who I am."
`FOREVER BONDED' WITH DAUGHERTY
Burt, who graduated from UW in 2006 with a degree in communications, was coaching at the University of Portland in May 2007 when Coach Daugherty went into cardiac arrest outside a clinic to which she was headed for an appointment in Everett. Burt's former UW teammate Kristin O'Neill, now an assistant at Seattle University, called her to tell Burt about their former coach's emergency. Burt dropped everything and immediately drove to Everett.
When she got the hospital, she found Daugherty had, like Burt, survived cardiac arrest. The coach's first words to her former leading scorer when she saw her in her hospital room: "Don't you have a J-O-B?"
"June and I are forever bonded. It's a cool relationship, knowing what each of us have gone through."
"June and I are forever bonded," Burt said of Daugherty, who is now coaching at Washington State with a defibrillator implanted in her, too. "It's a cool relationship, knowing what each of us have gone through. We send texts to each other all the time."
After she left the coaching job at Portland Burt was an EMT herself for Tri-Med ambulance service operating out of Tukwila. That was her following a life-long interest in emergencies and trauma.
"My favorite show was Rescue 9-1-1 growing up," she said.
The said "it was surreal" the first time she performed CPR on an emergency call -- a person with an implanted pacemaker trying to save the life of another who desperately needed one.
She has also worked in the Valley Medical Center in Renton, in its emergency room as a medical and surgical technician. But the hours were long. The night shifts were tough on Burt, who still gets easily fatigued in evenings. Plus, she admits to being something of a self-described "homebody."
I asked Dr. Harmon what she feels Burt's legacy is at UW.
Here's some of it: Harmon and the Huskies' medical staff have in the last nine years found cardiac issues in student-athletes through being proactive in pre-competition screenings, discoveries that have likely saved lives.
"Certainly, Kayla's situation has made an impact in my career and in my life," Harmon said. "I do research on sudden death in cardiac cases, really impactful research."
Last April, Harmon was the lead author in a study co-written by UW Medicine colleague Dr. Jonathan Drezner that appeared in Circulation, the Journal of the American Heart Association. The study, "Incidents of Sudden Cardiac Death in National Collegiate Athletic Association Athletes," found the leading medical cause of 273 student-athlete deaths in the NCAA from 2004-08 was cardiac, with roughly the same amount of incidents as homicide and suicide combined. Harmon showed the incidence of sudden cardiac arrest was far higher than previously shown.
Wednesday, Harmon learned her study won a national award for best research paper for family medicine.
Harmon says universities and its athletic training staffs screen for cardiac warning signs more than they ever have, and that they are far more aware of and trained in what Burt describes as an "epidemic" among young athletes.
"What's happened to Kayla, it has really made a difference in so many lives beyond U-Dub."
"What's happened to Kayla," Harmon says, "it has really made a difference in so many lives beyond U-Dub."
As for Burt's, she is 29, single and without children. She admits she thinks "every day" about wanting to have a family. But her thoughts, of course, aren't the usual ones of "What kind of parent will I be? What will my kids be like?"
Doctors say her condition is not hereditary. But part of her wonders, what do they know? After nine years, they still can't pinpoint what her condition is. They still haven't told her conclusively why she went into cardiac arrest as a perfectly healthy, big-time college athlete in the prime of her playing career.
"It scares me," she says of wanting to have children. "I've been told I'm going to be OK, but I wonder ... what my life is going to be like later?"
Kayla, if it's anything like what it is now, yours is going to be as fulfilling, enriching and giving as any life imaginable.
About Gregg Bell Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for The Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.