Rock Chalk Weekly: Courtney's Heart
Written by Katy Lonergan and Trae Green, Kansas Athletic Communications
Simplifying the science behind the human heart shows that it really is nothing more than a pump, composed of muscle which pumps blood throughout the body, beating approximately 72 times per minute to keep humans alive. But this pump is essential to human life. The heart pumps the blood, which carries all the vital materials which help our bodies function and removes the waste products that we do not need.
For Kansas junior Courtney Arnick, his heart is more than a muscle pumping blood. It is an organ that carries his love for his family and for the sport of football, one he cherishes deeply.
Arnick arrived in Lawrence in June of 2012 ready to take on the world. He had finished near the top of his class academically at Carter High School in Dallas and his passion for the game of football was undeniable. For this hard-hitting linebacker football was a part of everything he did and wanted to do in the future.
Arnick’s older brother, Curnelius, was just finishing an outstanding gridiron career at the University of Tulsa where he was a four-year starter and led the Golden Hurricane in tackles with 159 in 2011. Arnick was determined to not only follow in Curnelius’ footsteps, but to surpass them.
As soon as Arnick arrived on campus and got settled into the place he would call home for the next four to five years, per the policy at Kansas he was given a physical before jumping into summer workouts. As part of the physical, Arnick went through the athletic department’s cardiac screening which consists of an Echocardiogram, Electrocardiogram (EKG) and an evaluation from cardiologist as a standard precautionary measure. For Arnick, this standard practice was possibly lifesaving.
An EKG can provide important information about a patient’s heart rhythm, a previous heart attack, increased thickness of heart muscle, signs of decreased oxygen delivery to the heart and problems with conduction of the electrical current from one portion of the heart to another.
Arnick’s EKG raised concerns about his heart rhythm and he was ordered to take part in further testing before he would be allowed to lift weights or condition with his teammates.
“I was kind of frustrated because while I was waiting to get further testing they held me out of workouts for the summer,” said Arnick. “I was frustrated because it was my freshman year, I had just gotten here and I wanted to work out with my teammates. I had high goals and expectations as a freshman. I was excited to be in a new program. The wait seemed like forever.”
After a few days of waiting, Arnick went to the hospital so more tests could be run on his heart and hopefully reveal what might have caused the alarming results on the original EKG. As part of the testing, Arnick had a second EKG performed and then conducted a workout on a treadmill with all kinds of wires attached to him so they could measure his heart beat during intense exercise, the type of workout his heart would be put through daily as a college football player.
“I felt like I was in a movie because that’s the only time I have ever seen something like that,” recalled Arnick. “It wasn’t realistic to me. I had only seen that stuff in the movies. They had me doing some serious conditioning trying to get my heart rate to go up as fast as it could.
“I was basically doing intervals of sprints on the treadmill, running as fast as I could for a couple of minutes, stopping and then going right back at it. It was an intense summer workout in itself, but it was in the hospital. It was in this small little room with about three or four doctors in there. It was weird, but it was like I could see myself playing in a movie right then.”
Following the second series of tests, Assistant Athletics Director for Sports Medicine, Murphy Grant, informed Arnick that he did indeed have an irregular heartbeat and in order to correct it he would need to have surgery.
Despite the fact that one of the most vital organs in his body was going to require repair, Arnick was not too worried. In fact, he let his mother, Carla, know about his need for surgery in passing and insisted she did not need to come to Lawrence for his procedure.
“I wasn’t too concerned because at the time Toben Opurum was on the team and he had a similar situation and it had turned out just fine,” said Arnick. “In my head, I thought, ‘It will be something small.’ I called my mom and said, ‘Hey, I have to have heart surgery. It’s no big deal. I’m fine and I’m feeling okay. Don’t worry about it, just stay at home.'”
Carla was not as calm with her son’s news.
“It was shocking to me as his mother,” said Carla. “Courtney tried to downplay the seriousness of the situation. Then a nurse called and gave me a complete explanation of what was going on and I knew I had to be there for him.”
So off to surgery Arnick went and much to his objection, Carla was right there with him. He was scheduled for an ablation, a procedure that can correct heart rhythm problems (arrhythmias). Ablation uses long, flexible tubes, or catheters, inserted through a vein in the groin and threaded to the heart to correct structural problems in the heart that cause an arrhythmia.
What was supposed to be a routine 45-minute procedure turned into much more than that for Arnick. Each time the doctors ablated the area in his heart that was causing the arrhythmia, the problem would return. They tried several times to no avail.
“The doctors came out of surgery and basically told me I was going to have to tell Courtney his football career was over,” said Carla. “I had to tell the doctor, ‘Sir, you don’t understand. My older son likes football, but Courtney, he LOVES football. You have to go in there again and at least try.'”
There were some risks involved. Among them was Arnick having to have a pacemaker installed for the rest of his life. That was a risk Carla was willing to take in order to give her son every opportunity to realize his dream of playing college football.
“The doctors went back in to try again and told me it would be 30 more minutes,” said Carla. “After waiting for three hours, they came back to me and said, ‘We got it Mom!’ and I was just so excited to hear that news.”
Obviously, Arnick was not aware of the drama that went along with his surgery as it was unfolding, but once he was awake in the recovery room, the doctors filled him in on his mother’s determination to keep his football career alive.
“They told me the story and that my mom was in tears of joy because she knows how passionate I am about football,” said Arnick. “I’ve always been passionate about the game and if it was taken away from me, I wouldn’t know what to do. She knew for a fact she couldn’t tell me that I couldn’t play football anymore because that would be similar to seeing me die as a mother because she knows my love for the game and how much it means to me.”
After frequent checkups following surgery, Arnick now has to have a regular six-month checkup on his heart and has passed with flying colors each time. With the surgery behind him, he was able to return to the field and finally take part in all team activities that fall.
With his mother supporting him along the way, Arnick has made his mark on the KU defense. After spending his first season in Lawrence as a redshirt while recovering from his surgery, Arnick played in all 12 games the following year, including six starts. He finished seventh on the team in tackles with 51, including a season-high nine-tackle performance at Texas Tech. He followed that up with another solid season at linebacker in 2014, again playing in all 12 games and picking up five starts. He posted a career-best 10 tackles at Oklahoma and was credited with 45 total stops on the season. Now a junior, Arnick has started 3-of-5 games in 2015 and has collected 16 tackles and his first-career interception.
Not only has he returned to the field to play the game he loves, but he has also made his mother proud by continuing to work hard in the classroom. A liberal arts and sciences major, Arnick has made his way onto the Academic All-Big 12 Second Team (2013) and has also earned a spot on the Big 12 Commissioner’s Honor Roll and the KU Athletics Director’s Honor Roll during his time as a Jayhawk.
“My mom has always told me that school has to be a priority,” said Arnick. “She has always pushed both me and my brother to work hard in the classroom. She demanded academics come before sports so once I got to KU I made sure to keep that in mind so I could continue to make her proud.”
Getting good grades is just one of many ways Arnick has made Carla proud. After she was able to push the doctors to make sure Arnick had every opportunity to play college football, he was able to be there for his mom when the tables were turned and she needed him by her side.
After spending quality time at home with his family over Christmas break, Arnick returned to Lawrence for the spring semester in early 2015. In February, Arnick received some more news he did not want to hear.
“I felt a knot in my breast in January, but I didn’t really pay it much attention,” explained Carla. “I felt it again in February and decided I should have it checked out. After a mammogram, my doctors determined I needed a biopsy and unfortunately it came back to be cancer.”
After a couple of days of confusion and miscommunication regarding her diagnosis, Carla was finally informed that she had a grade 3 lump and stage 1 breast cancer. She had surgery to remove the lump and immediately started chemotherapy treatments.
“It was really gut wrenching to get the news my mom had cancer,” said Arnick. “I know she is a really tough woman, but anytime you hear the word ‘cancer’ you automatically assume the worst. On top of that, I was in Kansas and it seemed so far away from Dallas. I really wanted to be there for her, but she stayed on me to not lose focus in school or with football.”
Unlike Arnick’s surgery that was a singular moment, Carla knew her battle was going to take months. She wanted to make sure her son kept working hard on his studies and his passion, football, like he always had and when she did need him she would let him know.
“Courtney desperately wanted to come and I would not let him,” said Carla. “I told him I would be fine. He had school and football and I assured him if he needed to be here, I would let him know. He knows I am a big fan of school and his education and it would make me feel better and pull through knowing that he was in school taking care of his business.”
Arnick was able to return home for his mother’s lumpectomy and also took her to some of her chemo treatments while he was home for a couple of weeks between the end of the spring semester and summer school classes beginning in June. Just as Carla made her presence known with the medical staff during her son’s surgery, Arnick was hands-on, making sure she was well supported during her medical procedures and appointments.
“Courtney was very attentive to me in the hospital,” laughed Carla. “He acted like I was the only patient in the hospital and made sure the nurses were on top of everything. Once he went back to school after my surgery, he was calling to check on me every day. During my chemotherapy he would call or FaceTime me while I was at treatment. Even though he wasn’t with me in Dallas, he was always there for me.”
When he wasn’t visiting or connecting on FaceTime, Arnick tried to let his passion for football serve as a pleasant distraction for Carla.
“My mom had to miss the spring game, so I had the whole team sign a poster for her,” said Arnick. “That cheered her up. I know how much she enjoys supporting me in all that I do so I have tried to tell her about practice and games and do my best to keep her mind off of what she is going through.”
Carla finished her final chemo treatment September 18 and her doctors are optimistic for a clean bill of health.
“My doctors said I am doing really well,” said Carla. “I didn’t have any complications during my treatment period. I am so thankful for all of the support I had from both of my sons, my mother and some members of my church. They motivated me to really beat this thing.”
Arnick is relieved his mom is done with chemo treatments and is hopeful for a complete recovery for his biggest fan.
“My mom has been there for me through it all,” said Arnick. “I was glad I could somewhat return the favor in her time of need. Even though I was not always physically by her side, she knew I was in her corner fighting right along with her, just like she did for me.”
With a perfectly steady rhythm now in place, Courtney’s heart beats for more than his life. His heart also beats for family and football.
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