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Running on an empty heart

By Crystal Kupper

A few seconds before he slumped to the hardwood floor, 16-year-old 6-foot-2 sophomore Jonathan Riddle had been dribbling the basketball down the court, yelling instructions to his teammates. The Creswell Bulldogs forward suddenly felt his limbs go slack. Dizziness overwhelmed him. Sweat soaked his red No. 42 jersey.

Then came the collapse.

When Riddle awoke, he couldn’t focus on questions the EMTs were asking him. He remembered nothing and wanted to finish the play. But his body wouldn’t let him, or even hint as to why it gave up.

It wouldn’t until it was almost too late.

Riddle had channeled his heart into sports from his freshman year forward, becoming a consistent performer in cross-country, basketball and baseball. He racked up MVP honors on his junior varsity teams with his quick legs and endurance.

During the fall of his sophomore year, Riddle fell ill for several days. But the doctor assured him it was only the flu.

Basketball season rolled around. His “flu” had left, but a lingering numbness remained.

“It felt like my blood had just stopped in its tracks,” Riddle says. “Like it wasn’t flowing at all.”

Despite continuing pain, confusion and blurry vision, Riddle averaged nearly 20 points a game. He told no one about his symptoms. But when he crumpled to the court that January night, he couldn’t hide it anymore.

At the hospital, the doctors said the teen had merely hyperventilated and sent him home. But Riddle knew something was seriously wrong. He could barely run a lap. He wasn’t hungry, and pounds began slipping off his already-slim body.

As the season progressed, the warning signs stayed with him. So back to the doctors he went.

“They just couldn’t figure it out,” Riddle says. “One doctor thought it was asthma; another said it was mononucleosis. Then they went back to hyperventilation, and then they weren’t sure at all.”

The breaking point came when a doctor told Riddle he was pretending to be sick to get attention.

“I was really angry,” Riddle says. “But after a while, I began to wonder if what they said was true. No one, except my parents, believed me.”

Meanwhile, the Bulldogs marched on, often with Riddle watching from the bench. Sometimes, he couldn’t even stand up to shake hands at a game’s end.

A committed Christian, Riddle gained a new understanding of his need for God as his body weakened.

“God has a much bigger plan than anything we can imagine, but I couldn’t see it right then,” Riddle says. “I had to trust Him for everything.”

When a man laid hands on Riddle at church and prophesied God would completely heal his illness, Riddle hoped for an instant transformation.

“I wanted to get back on the court right away,” he said. “When that didn’t happen, I had to look at God’s heart and what He wanted for me, not what I wanted for myself. But it wasn’t easy.”

Spring came, bringing baseball with it. But without his arm strength, Riddle lost his starting pitching position, and one more sport he loved.

Finally, Riddle’s father insisted to doctors that the problem must be with Riddle’s heart.

“The doctors still thought I was faking it,” Riddle says. “But my dad intimidated them into giving me a heart test.”

After administering an echocardiogram, the doctors were amazed at the results. Staring back at them was a heart that was providing only 12 percent of the oxygen needed, cutting off blood to most of the body.

Riddle had been sprinting down the court on an empty heart for an entire season. The doctors told him he should have been dead.

He was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, a sometimes-fatal heart disease that effectively starves the body of oxygen. Finally, Riddle had a name for the illness that benched him. Most importantly, he knew he wasn’t crazy.

His physicians immediately put him on medications that lowered his blood pressure. He was to do nothing strenuous, including basketball and running. So he sat on the sidelines again, first as the basketball team played in summer leagues, then as his cross-country team ran without him. 

But as he stayed on his medications, Riddle began to feel “halfway normal” again. Something else was helping, too — his mother fervently prayed for God to continue His healing process. Slowly, Riddle began to recover.

At first, he could shuffle around the gym in defense drills when his junior season came. Then, he could shoot free throws, run around a screen, and hustle back to his spot on the zone defense.

He couldn’t play many minutes, but No. 42 was back.

When March Madness came in Riddle’s senior season, the No. 1-ranked Bulldogs landed in the championship game. Riddle was grateful just to be alive and playing. He had steadily improved since his life-changing collapse two years earlier, and now he was going to play his heart out.

And he did. Riddle scored nine points and played nearly every minute. Just months earlier, he couldn’t even last a half. The doctors couldn’t explain it, but their patient could.

“God was gradually healing me,” Riddle says. “Everything just flowed.”

The Creswell Bulldogs triumphantly earned their 2000 Oregon 3A State Championship trophy that night. Riddle was a state champion.

Today, Riddle still has a susceptibility to heart diseases. He still has to watch himself closely and get checked regularly by a cardiologist.

But Riddle considers himself completely healed. His heart could have killed him, but it recently sustained him on his first marathon — all 26.2 agonizing miles.

He’s a marathon runner, when once he could barely walk.

His health ordeal has changed his life, he admits, but that was all in God’s plan.

“It’s the little things that God teaches you,” he says, “one step at a time.”

CRYSTAL KUPPER lives in Mountain Home, Idaho.

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