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Tristan's true grit: Mouat basketball player makes courageous return from open heart surgery

After Wednesday’s playoff game against Gleneagle, Tristan Etienne took a look at the six-inch scar left behind by open heart surgery that he underwent on Jan. 11. Just over a month after the procedure to repair a hole in his heart, the Grade 10 athlete is back in the W.J. Mouat Hawks’ lineup. - Dan Kinvig
After Wednesday’s playoff game against Gleneagle, Tristan Etienne took a look at the six-inch scar left behind by open heart surgery that he underwent on Jan. 11. Just over a month after the procedure to repair a hole in his heart, the Grade 10 athlete is back in the W.J. Mouat Hawks’ lineup.
— image credit: Dan Kinvig

Under the W.J. Mouat Hawks basketball jersey worn by Tristan Etienne is a protective vest.

Under the vest is a six-inch-long scar down the middle of his chest.

Under the scar, Etienne’s sternum is sewn together with wire. The bone won’t be fully fused back together for another four months.

Under the wire beats a heart which used to have a four-centimetre hole in it.

And under a basketball hoop is Etienne, all 6’9” of him, joyfully testing his repaired ticker in a playoff game, just five weeks after open heart surgery.

*****

Etienne’s journey to the operating table began on Remembrance Day, 2011.

The 15-year-old was relaxing in his bedroom, watching TV, when he suddenly called out for his mom, Mirjana Jurcic.

It took her a moment to understand what was wrong. Etienne’s T-shirt was bouncing up and down like nothing she’d ever seen.

It was a heart palpitation. Etienne had been experiencing them almost weekly. He hadn’t mentioned them because they went away after 30 or 40 seconds.

This one would go on for 45 minutes, and his mom took him to the emergency room at Abbotsford Regional Hospital.

From there, Etienne was referred to cardiologists at BC Children’s Hospital in Vancouver, where he was eventually diagnosed with atrial septal defect – a congenital heart disorder.

In utero, a fetus normally has an opening between the two upper chambers of the heart that joins together around the time the baby is born. In Etienne’s case, it never closed.

“It was a fluke that we found out,” Jurcic explained.

“We could have gone years without knowing. In adulthood, it could have been very dangerous for him, in terms of different complications. His heart could have become enlarged because one side was working so much harder than the other.”

*****

Etienne isn’t your run-of-the-mill basketball prospect.

He was invited to try out for Canada’s U16 national team last summer, despite being a year younger than the age limit. Hoopstarscanada.com had him ranked No. 3 nationally in the Class of 2014. It’s not hard to imagine an NCAA Div. 1 scholarship in his future.

Hawks coach Rich Ralston calls him the best Grade 10 in the province.

“He’s 6’9” and still growing,” Ralston said. “By the time he’s done, he’ll be the best player we’ve ever had here (at Mouat).”

*****

Surgeons initially planned a less invasive procedure to access Etienne’s heart, via a vein in his leg. The goal was to insert a closure device in the gap, but the hole was too big.

So on Jan. 11, Etienne underwent open heart surgery.

Then, on the road to recovery, Etienne stomped on the gas pedal.

One week after the surgery, he showed up at Hawks practice and ran a couple sets of suicide sprints with his teammates – each stride accompanied by a sense that the gruelling drill could have a more literal definition.

He’d been told it would be about two months before he’d be cleared to return to game action, but at the five-week mark, doctors gave him the green light.

Last Friday, in the Fraser Valley East AAA league semifinal against the Yale Lions, Etienne entered the game five minutes into the first quarter. In short order, he was knocked to the floor while battling for a rebound.

Watching from the stands, Jurcic’s heart might have skipped a beat. Had it been the right thing to do, letting him play so soon? But Etienne bounced back up and ran down the court, and mom breathed a sigh of relief.

“It was a rush, like a kid on a sugar high,” recalled Etienne, who finished with four points and five rebounds as Mouat rallied for a 72-63 win. “I just had so much energy built up from not being able to do anything.

“My cardio wasn’t affecting me – I still had energy – but my chest would get sore from overuse. So I’d have to sit down for a few minutes.”

*****

From all accounts, Etienne is the ultimate teammate – a humble kid who’s more worried about helping his team win than padding his stats.

One gets the sense the soft-spoken youngster is a bit embarrassed by the media attention his return has garnered.

His mom says it’s important for him to do the interviews, though, in order to say thank-you to the doctors who helped him through his ordeal, and to the basketball community that showered him with encouragement.

The basketball teams from Terry Fox Secondary and White Rock Christian Academy both made Etienne get-well cards covered with signatures. And when he attended Mouat games in person during his convalescence, countless opposing players and fans sought him out.

“I’d go watch my team play, and people who I either didn’t remember or had never met, they’d come up to me on the sideline and say something to make me feel a little better,” he said with a smile.

Pat Lee, who co-coaches the Hawks along with Ralston, marveled at Etienne’s fearlessness through the entire process.

“I’ve never seen a kid with that kind of courage,” he said. “He must have hit the floor three times on the first shift of his first game.

“As a coach, you get to see a lot of great moments. But that will go down as one of the greatest of my coaching career.”

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