Through Her Eyes
Kentucky women’s basketball’s Tionna Herron tells her story in her own words
I had ADHD and my doctor thought I should be placed in a sport. The sport chosen for me was basketball. It was supposed to be something to keep me occupied and spend my energy. I would have never imagined how basketball would impact my future.
When I was eight years old, my mom took me to my very first basketball practice. “Exciting”, I thought as I walked into the gym. Being my first time touching a basketball, I was not very good at any aspect of the game. Towards the end of the practice we had our first conditioning segment which was running up and down the court. “Okay cool”, I thought as I got ready to step up to the line. Shortly after, I started experiencing chest pains, so I told my mother. When the chest pains lasted during the car ride home, my mom scheduled me for an appointment with a physician. Since my physician thought my pain had something to do with my lungs, she referred me to a pulmonologist.
The Doctors’ Visit
This doctor, not seeing anything wrong with my lungs, referred me to a cardiologist who found that I had Mitral Valve Prolapse. The doctor assured me that there was nothing to worry about, other than needing a checkup every five years. The doctor said the pain was due to overexertion with exercise and to take ibuprofen for the pain. Mitral Valve Prolapse is a condition where the two flaps in the mitral valve do not close properly causing abnormal heart rhythm, irregular heart rate, murmur, palpitations and shortness of breath. With this new information I did exactly what the cardiologist asked of me, which was to come back for a checkup every five years.
The Check Ups
At the five-year checkups, I would still complain of mild chest pain. Being very active in sports and now being a teenager, I was told to take ibuprofen to cure the pain. However, my mom was concerned and had me tested for a different illness called Marfan’s Syndrome. Marfan’s is an inherited disorder that affects the connective tissues. Some systems are tall and slenderly built. They have disproportionately long arms, legs and fingers. However, after testing for this disease it was ruled out as a cause of my chest pains.
The First Red Flag
My senior year of high school, I had to have an unrelated health surgery that would set me back two to three months. During this surgery, my anesthesiologist saw I had an irregular heartbeat and found that concerning. After my surgery he let my mom know, and she just told him I had already been seeing a cardiologist. A week later, I had to have that same surgery because the surgery site had got infected. Having a different anesthesiologist who had the same concern for my irregular heartbeat, my mom scheduled me for another appointment with my cardiologist.
The day of my visit I was told I would be doing a stress test and having a CT done with special dye to trace the heart. A stress test is a test that shows the heart at work during physical activity (in my case, it was a treadmill workout). After this test it was time for the CT scan, which was to get advanced pictures of my heart. When this was done, my mom and I were told to wait for the results, which took around an hour. When my doctor called us into the office she handed us a sheet of paper with a picture of what looked like my heart. She told us that I had a rare condition called Anomalous Aortic Origin of my right Coronary Artery (AAORCA). This just means that both of my coronary arteries arise from the same sinus. To be more specific my right coronary artery which is supposed to pump blood was attached to my left artery and branching through to its correct side causing it to be squished between my aorta and my heart valve. With this new information, I was told that I could continue playing basketball and that there wasn’t anything serious to worry about at that moment.
The Set Back
It was now time for me to go to college and run some tests there before I could get cleared to play basketball at that level. I went down a week before all of the other players got down there in order to run these tests. My first doctor’s appointment was with the team’s physician and I would run that same stress test, along with an EKG and Echocardiogram. After finding out everything was fine I still had one more doctor appointment to get out the way. The appointment was at Emory Healthcare in Atlanta, Georgia. After I ran the exact same test, the doctor mentioned I should do one more test to solidify the results, the test was a Cardiac Catheterization. This is a procedure where they insert a thin tube into a blood vessel all the way up to the heart. After this procedure was done they found that my artery was being pinched and was unable to deliver enough blood to my heart. It was all coming down to a conversation between each of my doctors about whether or not I should have this surgery. The day of the Zoom call, I already knew they would say. I needed the surgery, so I went in level headed. After the call it was time to decide who my mother and I would trust to do the surgery.
Back when I was first told of my condition, my mom had already spoken to a hospital that was interested in my case. This was amazing to hear because nobody wanted to step up and perform the surgery. Although, there has been AAORCA correctional surgeries performed before, my specific surgery was the first of its kind. Even though the procedure seemed scary, my doctors assured me that everything would be fine. Before the surgery began they walked me through it and explained to me what was going to happen. By my understanding they were going to do a coronary artery reimplantation. This meant they were going to saw through my sternum to get to my heart. Then they would find the artery that is branching from the incorrect spot, cut it and replant it in the correct area. Although all that sounds very frightening, I said do whatever you have to do to get me back on the court. The surgery was set for August 24th, 2022, a week after my surgery consultation. This is when it all started to get real.
It was now the night before my surgery which was being performed at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, Texas. That night all I could think about was the pain I would feel after. That morning, I woke up as ready as I could be knowing I was about to have heart surgery. I was brave and wanted to get this obstacle of my life out of the way so that I could continue doing what I love to do, playing basketball. Going into the operating room was probably one of the most terrifying experiences ever. I have really tiny veins, so they had to use an ultrasound to find my veins in the operating room instead of putting me to sleep beforehand. As soon as I rolled in that room and saw all of the scissors sitting piled up on a tray by the operating bed, I was terrified. All I can remember is how hard I was shaking after that point, being brave was out the window. As they poked my skin and entered the anesthesia, all I could do was pray knowing they were about to stop my heart, put me on a bypass and fiddle with my heart until it was fixed.
The first thing I remember waking up to was my high school coaches hovering over my bed talking about our school rivals. I don’t remember what I said, probably something crazy considering I was still a bit out of it. They leave and my mom comes in showing me videos and pictures she’s taken since I’ve come from the operating room. That’s when I looked down and realized that there were tubes coming out of me. I definitely think one of the most painful things was me getting those tubes pulled out of me the next day. Getting out of the bed the next day to even use the restroom was painful. I think I cried every time I had to use the restroom because I knew it was going to hurt moving from my bed to the toilet. Later that day, the physical therapist came in and told me that it was time to walk. Keep in mind how painful getting out of the bed and turning to sit on a toilet was, I was not prepared. They pushed a walker and a wheelchair in, in case I needed to take a seat. Now it was time to get up and walk, I made sure my mom had my uncle watching and of course she wanted to record also. It was a struggle walking at the pace I was forced to walk at because usually I’m very quick on my feet. After another two days, I was released to go back to our Airbnb knowing I still had to come back a week later before I could go home to Dallas.
The day before my one week checkup, I had been experiencing some pain and didn’t know where it was coming from. My mom had been asking if I wanted to go to the emergency room all day and I kept telling her no. That night I had a burst of pain and all I could do was cry, my mom ran in and insisted I went to the emergency room and I said okay. The doctor comes in the room and says that they would be doing an echo to look at the area that was causing me pain. After they took a look, they told me that I had fluid surrounding my heart and that they would need to keep me to treat it. They started giving me water pills to make me use the restroom a whole bunch in hopes that would help remove some of the fluid. After a few days, I was released to go back home to Dallas and to just do a checkup with my at home cardiologist a week later.
A month later, a post was made and the unlimited support I got from my family and friends, to people I didn’t even know was amazing. My teammates and coaches supported me even though I wasn’t on campus at the time and kept me uplifted. I thank each and every one who prayed for me, supported me and kept me uplifted throughout this process. I look forward to playing with my team next year and doing great things with them. This was a story of my heart surgery through my eyes.