A Devastating Diagnosis
On New Year’s Day 2021, with the Tokyo Games just six months away, Olympic high jumper Priscilla L. made a resolution. “I resolved to control only what I’m able to control,” she said.
She had survived the emotional upheaval of 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics. She set her sights on 2021 and kept on training. But then, 17 days into the new year, she tested positive for COVID-19.
“I instantly cried,” Priscilla says. “I didn’t know what was happening but I knew I’d miss the start of indoor track and field season. It was devastating.”
Priscilla had many of the telltale COVID-19 symptoms—lack of energy, sinus congestion and a loss of smell and taste. The only thing she didn’t have was a fever. She spent a week on the couch.
When she slowly tried to start training again, she started having chest pain. “I had no cardiac problems before,” says Priscilla, 32. “I went to urgent care, then an ER, and they couldn’t find anything wrong with my heart.”
In February, a visit to another doctor revealed she had pleurisy, an inflammation of the lungs that can cause intermittent chest pain. “I was cleared for 30% of my workouts, but that wouldn’t be enough to make the Olympics,” says Priscilla, who lives in Wildwood, NJ, has dual citizenship in the U.S. and Antigua and Barbuda. She competes internationally for Antigua and Barbuda.
A Search for Answers
When her chest pain didn’t get better in March, she went to another doctor, received a MRI and got some startling news. “He said my heart didn’t look good and I’d have to retire from competition,” Priscilla says. “I couldn’t believe it.”
But Priscilla wasn’t about to take no for answer. She searched high and low for an expert who could give her a second opinion.
Someone she knew connected her with Barry Lowell, MD, an interventional cardiologist at Atlantic Health System. “Dr. Lowell told me he knew a specialist who deals with athletes and hearts, and he’d know exactly how to diagnose this,” Priscilla says.
On March 31, Priscilla and her mom traveled three hours north to meet with that doctor, Atlantic Health System sports cardiology specialist Matthew Martinez, MD, on the campus of Morristown Medical Center. Martinez is a nationally recognized expert in identifying and treating athletes with underlying heart issues such as arrhythmia or hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (thickening of the heart muscle, the most common cause of sudden cardiac death in young athletes).
Martinez examined Priscilla, reviewed her MRIs and gave her a definitive answer. “He told me that there was nothing wrong with my heart; it just looked different because I’m an athlete. Then he said, ‘Start training for the Olympics!’”
In late June, she competed in the National Track & Field Championships in Bahamas. While she fell just short of making the Olympic Standard and will not be competing in the Tokyo Olympics, she’s proud of her high jump career, which has included one Olympic appearance (Rio 2016) and two Pan-American Games silver medals. And she’s looking forward to a healthy future.