Implant keeps hopes alive

By Martin Johnston

Water polo player aiming for top despite defibrillator and near-death experience.

Dylan Smith plays water polo for New Zealand even though he has a defibrillator implant. Photo / Richard Robinson
Dylan Smith plays water polo for New Zealand even though he has a defibrillator implant. Photo / Richard Robinson

Dylan Smith hasn't let a near-death experience, when his heart stopped beating, put him off reaching for the highest levels of water polo.

The 20-year-old from Hillcrest on Auckland's North Shore plays goalkeeper in the tough sport despite having had a battery-powered defibrillator the size of a deck of cards implanted under the skin, on top of his ribs below his left arm. It's there to electrically shock his heart back into action, via an electrode also between the ribs and skin, if he suffers a third attack like the first two.

Smith is in the New Zealand senior men's squad at this week's water polo world league Asia-Oceania group tournament at the WestWave Aquatic Centre in Henderson.

In August 2011, when Smith was working in the kitchen peeling potatoes at the Mills Reef winery and restaurant in Tauranga, he collapsed without warning, hitting his head on the bench on his way down. His heart and breathing had stopped.

His workmates at first thought he was joking. But when he turned grey, the chef, who had recently trained in first aid, quickly began doing CPR.

"I had CPR for 17 minutes while the ambulance came. When the ambulance came I had the external defibrillator to get my heart beat back.

"They got me into the ambulance. On the way to hospital my heart ... stopped again. I had to have another [shock from the defibrillator]," says Smith, a second-year physiotherapy student at Auckland University of Technology.

He spent a fortnight in Tauranga Hospital before being shifted to Waikato Hospital to have the defibrillator installed. At first he was diagnosed with long QT syndrome, an abnormal heart rhythm, but after later blood tests he was told he had a heart condition of unknown cause.

Smith described going through emotional turmoil - grief, anger, denial, feelings of unfairness, blaming himself for the effect of his cardiac arrest on his family because it came immediately after his grandfather's death - but has since managed to focus on his dreams, despite scepticism from his doctor. He wants to play professional water polo in Europe.

"The cardiologist had told me that the chances of me playing sport again and living the life that I was leading before was almost out of the picture. Then I got very determined and cleaned up my whole way of thinking and now I don't dwell on things that are not important."

Smith knows the risks of playing a contact sport, including that the defibrillator could get knocked and malfunction, shocking his heart when not needed, but he reckons that as a goalkeeper the risks are lower than if he played in other positions. But he keeps his mind off those thoughts.

"The more I worry about, I'm not thinking about the game completely."

- NZ Herald

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