HEALING HEART

Former WCU coach helps discover son’s rare condition

By TYLER NORRIS GOODE

Complaining isn’t in Cody Briggs’ vocabulary. Two years ago, the high school quarterback didn’t miss a snap after breaking the thumb on his throwing hand early in the junior varsity football season. So figuring out he had a less obvious — and potentially life-threatening — heart condition wasn’t easy. It took a dialed-in father who’d spent the past few years focusing on healthy living to uncover the first clue.

Cody Briggs is recovering from a potentially life-threatening heart condition that dad Kent Briggs ’79 MAEd ’81 helped diagnose.

Cody Briggs is recovering from a potentially life-threatening heart condition that dad Kent Briggs ’79 MAEd ’81 helped diagnose.

After Western Carolina football coach Kent Briggs ’79 MAEd ’81 was reassigned to the university’s health and physical education department in 2007, he had a decision to make. He could have worked out a settlement for the two remaining years of his contract, pursued another job and uprooted his family. Instead, he transformed his passion for football into a personal crusade to make young kids healthier.

“Here’s a guy who could have done nothing at all, and they still would have had to pay him,” said David Claxton, head of WCU’s health, physical education and recreation department at the time. “But he did not do that. Kent sought me out, and sought others out, and said, ‘If I’m going to be assigned to this department, what are some good things I can do?’”

Briggs and his supervisors settled on the goal of studying and fighting an alarming trend of childhood obesity. Briggs immediately immersed himself in the topic and personally did fitness assessments on 1,300 kids while working through the remainder of his WCU contract in 2008 and 2009. Thanks in large part to what he learned in his new role at WCU, he recognized an irregularity with his son’s heart and may have ultimately saved Cody’s life.

As part of his motivational talks to students, he told them their resting heart rate would get lower as they got into better physical condition. “One of the benefits of cardiovascular activity and training is it usually lowers your resting heart rate,” he said. “That’s one of the by-products, a good thing.”

After completing his study, published in the Journal of the North Carolina Alliance for Athletics, Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, Briggs became a volunteer assistant football coach at Smoky Mountain and soon moved into a full-time job as a health and physical education instructor.

One day in spring 2011, Cody – then a sophomore – came home from school and mentioned he’d measured his resting heart rate at around 100 in health class. “I said, ‘Oh, you must have miscalculated; you didn’t get that right,’” Kent Briggs recalled saying. “I said, ‘What’d you do – run around then test it?’ He said, ‘No, I was sitting still.’ So I said, ‘Let me do it.’ It was still around 100, and he wasn’t doing anything.”

That’s when the elder Briggs sought the help of medical professionals. Doctors emphasized to the Briggs family that a high resting heart rate alone doesn’t always mean a patient has an underlying condition. However, when accompanied with Cody’s other symptoms (dizziness, lightheadedness after working out), it can be a sign of something more serious.

Doctors at Duke Children’s Hospital diagnosed the younger Briggs with a rare condition called ectopic atrial tachycardia. The Briggs were told that if left untreated, the condition could lead to an enlarged heart. Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (thickening of the heart muscle) is the leading cause of death in athletes — and the most common cause of heart-related sudden death in people younger than 30.

Assured by doctors that the condition could be treated safely via medication through the football season, Kent and his wife consented to Cody’s desire to play ball last fall as a junior before undergoing a corrective surgical procedure.

It wasn’t an easy call, especially for Lisa Briggs ’87 MPA ’89, WCU associate professor of criminology and criminal justice, who had stood by her husband’s side as he battled and recovered from head and neck cancer before and during the 2005 season at WCU. Kent Briggs has now been cancer-free for six years. “I’ve been through my share of challenging football seasons,” Lisa Briggs said. “This one was probably my most worrisome, I guess. Because when it’s your child involved, it’s hard to let go and trust the doctors.”

Cody played in all of the Mustangs’ games and made it through the season fine, then underwent a roughly five-hour surgical procedure known as catheter ablation. While doctors have informed the family that the condition returns in roughly 20 percent of cases like this, Cody’s outlook is excellent as long as his heart rate is monitored.

He has been cleared to return to regular physical activity and is now pleased his father was so tuned in to his physical condition. “I thought my parents and doctors were making a big deal over nothing,” Cody Briggs said. “But there really was something wrong because I had to go to Duke Hospital to get it fixed. I am glad it is not an issue anymore, and I think I am going to feel more athletic because my heart can actually be normal now.”

Reprinted in edited format with permission of the Asheville Citizen-Times.