Back in the game
MIDDLETOWN — In spring of 2013, less than two months after heart surgery, 11-year-old Chase Tasker stepped up to bat for his Warren County Little League baseball team. He chose his pitch, connected with the ball and jogged to first base.
At his All Star game, he was back to running bases, and on Memorial Day, he pitched three innings.
He did really well, his father Todd Tasker recalled. “He was throwing strikes.”
Now 13, Chase is pretty much back to normal, or what his mother Renee Tasker called “the new normal.”
Before he was diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy — an enlargement of his heart to three times its regular size — Chase was a rising star in county sports. He weighed 105 pounds during the 2012 football season, but at the start of basketball season, his weight had fallen to 95.
He was admitted to the University of Virginia Medical Center on Jan. 28, 2013. Two months later, after surgery, the 11-year-old pitcher and quarterback returned home weighing 70 pounds.
His father remembered all too well how pediatric cardiologist Dr. Thomas L’Ecuyer’s words caused his mind to race with concern for his son’s future.
“When he said transplant, we thought sports were done,” Todd Tasker said. “I didn’t know you could bounce back.”
But, two years later, Chase’s mother has high hopes for him, urging him now to consider a new role on his junior varsity football team: linebacker.
Chase remembers little from his two months in Charlottesville, but said the proof of his personal war is written on his chest.
“I got shot four times and I got stabbed in the heart,” he joked. It makes for a heroic story, though he doesn’t need the added drama.
In truth, his four bullet wounds came from cannula tubes inserted to divert blood flow through a Left Ventricle Assist Device — a mechanical pump that helped Chase’s heart carry blood throughout his body while he waited for a new heart.
The LVAD followed a procedure to bypass Chase’s heart using an Extra Corporeal Membrane Oxygenation circuit — what his father called “a true heart bypass.”
Chase was under anesthetic and still in serious condition, but his mother remembered how relieved she felt simply knowing the ECMO was working.
By then, Chase had been at UVA for two weeks and would have another six to go before returning home.
“It was one of the best weeks we had,” Renee Tasker said.
It was the sort of perfection that only applies in grim situations.
“What I’m calling a perfect weekend is nowhere near perfect,” she said. “You just have to take it day by day.”
A year later, the approach of the one-year anniversary would leave her gasping for breath at times, as her mind relived all those long hours of waiting for a way of saving her son.
One in 200,000 children are diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy, said Dr. Kevin Kollins, a pediatric cardiologist with UVA Children’s Hospital’s Winchester Specialty Care Clinic.
“It’s not too common,” he said. “It does sometimes run in families.”
Only about 39 percent of patients learn the cause, he said, though knowing this can help physicians better treat their patients.
Symptoms also vary, depending on the patient and degree of abnormal heart muscle, he said.
Chase’s symptoms began with coughing and vomiting, weight loss and eventually wheezing.
Lying in his hospital bed, wheezing as his lungs filled with fluid, and his mother recalled him trying to soothe her concern:
“Mom, don’t worry. I’m just making that noise so I won’t go to sleep.”
On Feb. 14, 2013, Chase’s name was added to a list of patients waiting for a new heart, and on Feb. 28 he had surgery.
The family stayed a month in the Ronald McDonald House in Charlottesville, trading off time spent at home with their older son Aaron, before bringing Chase home on March 28.
The medical bills exceeded $2 million, but the Taskers’ catastrophic health insurance kicked in after they spent $6,000 in 2013 and $7,000 in 2014. Medicaid covered their stay at the Ronald McDonald House, and the Kids Wish Network gave the family a Carnival cruise to the Bahamas, which they took last month.
UVA was wonderful, Renee Tasker said.
“Their bedside manner is just the best you could ever ask for,” she said. “At Charlottesville, they treat you like family.”
Friends and neighbors visited them or hosted fundraisers, their church pitched in to help out at home and the school district let Chase get credit for schoolwork when his mother read aloud to him at the hospital.
He returned to Warren County Middle School during the last week of the spring semester to a celebration of cards from teachers and fellow students.
People who didn’t even know them helped more than they knew, his mother recalled.
“That’s what gets you through it,” she said.
Now through the worst of it, Chase will stay on anti-rejection medication for life, and his father said he’ll likely need another transplant as an adult.
“Medical science has come a very long way,” he said. “[But] a heart transplant is a fix, not a cure.”
Though no family is ever prepared for a child to have lifesaving surgery, Chase’s parents had prepared him to be supportive of a friend who had a longtime heart condition.
Instead, it was Chase who needed a new heart.
“People always ask you how you do it,” his father said. “You don’t have a choice.”
Contact staff writer Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or firstname.lastname@example.org