There’s a mark on Stevie Wisz’s calendar for June and it’s a big one. Actually, it’s three big ones, but the final one is what she needs to keep living. Literally.
The senior outfielder for the UCLA softball team will hopefully be in the dugout with her Bruins for the Women’s College World Series, set to begin May 30 and run through June 5. She will get her biology degree at the school’s graduation the weekend of June 14 with the hopes of becoming a cardiologist. And one week after that she will go in for heart surgery, a procedure doctors urged her in January to have done immediately.
Wayne Drehs profiled the 21-year-old for ESPN and described her life in and out of operating rooms and the UCLA dugout.
‘Weird’ heartbeat leads to diagnosis
Wisz was first diagnosed with a heart issue during her 1-year-old check-up when the doctor noticed a “weird” heartbeat.
She was diagnosed with aortic stenosis, a severe narrowing of the aorta that in Wisz’s case was 1/16 the size it should have been. Blood was leaking back into the heart chamber, forcing it to work harder. It is one of the most common and most severe heart problems with more than 200,000 cases in the U.S. per year.
They recommended life-saving open-heart surgery, but advised the family to wait and monitor until her heart grew to full size.
Three surgeries by the age of 16
Wisz had her first surgery in the summer of 2006 at the age of 9, per ESPN. It was a nine-hour procedure during which doctors discovered she also had heterotaxy, a rare condition in which the internal organs are arranged abnormally. In Wisz’ case, there was a hole between the heart’s chambers.
The surgery was successful, but temporary, and meant Wisz had to put aside her other sports: soccer, basketball and anything requiring endurance. Doctors recommend keeping in shape, such as brisk 30-minute walks, but don’t want patients putting stress on their hearts.
One year after the first surgery, doctors had the 10-year-old Wisz rush to UCLA to have a pacemaker installed after they noticed via a 24-hour heart monitor it stopped multiple times a night for seconds at a time. It was not associated with her previous condition or operation and “was basically bad luck,” her mother Melissa said.
She had another surgery at the age of 15 when leaking again became severe. Doctors were able to improve blood flow by installing a pig valve, which is meant to last 10 to 12 years, during a procedure that lasted 13 hours. She experienced a collapsed lung while in post-op and returned to school in a wheelchair, but made a full recovery over the proceeding months.
Wisz walks on at UCLA
Wisz spent a lot of time at the UCLA Medical Center and said it was “never a question” she would go to school there. She told ESPN she was a “mediocre” high school softball player, though she made her newspaper’s all-area team and was part of a division championship. She emailed UCLA coaches for a tryout and secured a spot.
She played in last year’s Women’s College World Series, robbing Florida’s Janell Wheaton of a go-ahead home run. She has only three at-bats, one hit, one stolen base and 23 runs in her four-year career yet she received glowing praise from coaches and teammates for being “the glue of UCLA softball,” per ESPN. She’s part of a team that has gone 192-42-1 in her four years with three consecutive Women’s College World Series berths, and another possibly coming next week.
Wisz faces fourth surgery
With her heart running solely on the pacemaker and severe leaking in her aorta, the 21-year-old will require a fourth surgery according to ESPN. She visited a different doctor for a second opinion in January and he urged her to have surgery right away.
"He was blown away that I could even live the way my heart is, not to mention be a Division I athlete," Wisz told ESPN.
The family and doctor discussed her past and how they were monitoring her health. Wisz was given the final decision and opted to limit her workouts while waiting out the surgery.
"I give so much of my life to that team and they give so much to me, I didn't want to miss out," Wisz told ESPN. "Not just the game, but the memories."
UCLA’s chances at a national title
The Bruins will open a best-of-three Super Regional series against James Madison on Friday. UCLA advanced out of the Los Angeles regional as a 2-seed while James Madison is the only non-seeded team to reach the next round.
UCLA is second in batting average (.345) and second in ERA (1.39) as a team. Ace Rachel Garcia holds a 1.02 ERA with 83 strikeouts. The right-hander has a solid bat, too, hitting for a .340 average with eight home runs and 43 RBIs.
UCLA last won the title in 2010.
No. 1 seeded Oklahoma is again riding the favorite wave after rattling off an NCAA-record 41 consecutive victories dating back to February. Wisconsin broke the streak in the regional round.
Florida State is seeded fourth a year after the school’s first title in a thrilling series with Washington. The SEC powers of Florida, LSU, Ole Miss, Kentucky and Tennessee are all around as well.
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