Sarah Taffet Endured Open Heart Surgery Then Helped Fordham To A10 Title
Sarah Taffet laid in her bed at the Rutgers University hospital, her eyes darting back and forth between her parents and the commotion going on outside the room. Her chest hurt and she could feel that many of her ribs were bruised, but Taffet was just confused. What had just happened to her didn’t really set in until about a year later. She was texting her teammates from the hospital about how crazy everything that just happened was.
“I posted a Snapchat story. I'm like, ‘Haha, just pissed myself and got resuscitated,’” Taffet said.
Hours earlier, Taffet was on the ground at a fall softball game against Villanova. She was jogging back from a hard tag out at first base that led to her passing out briefly and falling to the ground when Fordham assistant athletic trainer Bridget Ward noticed a strange look in Taffet’s eyes. Then, Taffet collapsed, her teammates surrounding her with panicked looks as Taffet began to seize on the ground.
Ward was able to help Taffet through the seizure and stabilize her enough to search for what might be wrong with her. Taffet’s breathing was irregular. Then it stopped and she began to turn blue. Ward grabbed an AED kit and pressed the button to shock her heart back to beating. They called the ambulance as her parents, Paul and Marie, watched over her. Marie hopped into the ambulance to ride with Taffet, who’d regained consciousness. Paul hopped in a Black Hyundai and sat passenger while one of the other team parents raced the father to the hospital.
Taffet sat in the hospital for two days while doctors ran a flurry of tests to determine why she, an active 21-year-old with no underlying conditions or history of cardiac events, had to be resuscitated after a tag, albeit a hard one, during a softball game. An EKG, a two and a half hour chest MRI, could not determine a condition. Her heart looked normal. Doctors released Taffet, who was not completely sold on the diagnosis, but determined it was a Commotio Cordis, a phenomenon where a sudden blunt impact to the chest causes sudden death in the absence of cardiac damage.
“The chances are so slim, because it hits the exact part of your heart at the exact moment it's in the rhythm,” Taffet said.
Taffet later went to the New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center for a second opinion. “You still can't play softball. I'm not sold on this,” the cardiologist told Taffet. So there were more tests from October 6 to the 28th. A genetic test: clean. More EKGs, an echocardiogram, a stress test. All clean, all showing that Taffet’s heart was, by all measures, completely normal. Then, in November 2021, Fordham head coach Melissa Inouye drove Taffet to another test. This time, a coronary angiogram.
It was already a weird day for Taffet. Her coach was late, and Taffet had to quickly walk to the waiting room in order to make the appointment on time. She still wasn’t able to run, but was out of breath by the time she made it to the hospital. In order to be able to run the test, Taffet’s heart rate needed to be between 60 and 100 beats per minute. It was too fast, so doctors had to give her a pill to slow it down. She sat in the waiting room for an hour and a half for it to slow to the range needed to administer the test.
After the test, which took around 45 minutes, doctors took a while to come back with the results. Taffet wasn’t sure what was wrong, but could see a worried look on her coach’s face. Ten different doctors had looked at the results of the test and determined that she had a congenital heart defect where one of the arteries in her heart was misplaced, causing a lack of oxygenated blood to enter her heart.
“You're going to need to get open heart surgery within the next few days, whenever there's availability, but you can't leave until then, because you could basically collapse and die at any moment,” Taffet remembers the doctors telling her.
That happened on a Thursday. The following Monday, Taffet underwent the six-hour surgery to repair her misplaced artery. She spent the rest of the week in the hospital and was discharged on the following Friday. Then the recovery process began. The next few months, Taffet said, was the hardest time of her life. She had to go home to New Jersey, although friends, teammates and coaches frequently visited her. She couldn’t run, but she walked laps at a local track. The first day, one lap, then two and so on, increasing her walks by one lap each day.
But doctors told her she’d be fully recovered by the spring, a statement that wouldn’t dare be uttered just a few weeks prior, or when Taffet’s parents shakily reassured Taffet in her hospital bed that everything would be okay. She came back to Fordham for the spring semester, and began practicing with the team for the 2022 season. It was challenging, she said, to get back in Division I physical shape after sitting on the couch recovering from open heart surgery for four months, but she did it. Taffet played in 47 games, starting all but one of them, and helped Fordham win the Atlantic 10 Conference championship in 2022.
“I just kept looking at the bigger picture, like, I'm alive,” Taffet said. “I'm here. I get to play. I'm just lucky to even be existing.”