My sister and niece came into town today. It is really great to spend some time with them as I only get to see them once or twice a year. My niece is six now and I remember holding her as a baby. What an amazing feeling that was.
She grew up so fast and I feel like I missed it all.
Holding a life right in your hands and having them be totally dependent on you. What a sobering and amazing feeling all at once; and it wasn’t even my kid!
I’ve always wanted my own kids. I always wanted to be a dad.
I want the responsibility and the memories. Ever since my father passed away at a young age, I’ve always had the feeling to be there for someone of my own flesh and blood. It drives me -- in a weird way.
Like many people, I didn’t have a lot growing up but always had enough. My mother made sure that myself and three sisters were fed, clothed and active. She would stay up late studying for school to provide for us. Whenever she had to go out and couldn’t get a babysitter, she would tell us: “I’ll be back in two Arthur shows.” That was the only show we could come to an agreement on watching together. I was not having Teletubbies!
My niece, Zoey. Six years old now.
Yes, there were times of the water being shut off or the power going out due to non-payment but those things happen when you’re trying to provide for four kids. My mom is superhuman and she answered the call.
I thought for many years after my father’s death that he hadn’t really died. I would dream of him visiting us ever so often. He was still sick when he would visit but for some reason he would always have an excuse for why he had to leave. I was so mad at him for a long time because I couldn’t believe he would let my mother parent all four of us, work 12 hours a day and then have school in the evenings.
It was all in my head.
The brain is very powerful and as I grieved, my undeveloped brain couldn’t handle the death. I guess it was a coping mechanism. (Definitely the worst one!) I didn’t tell anyone else my dreams, I kept them to myself in hope he would come back someday.
Every family photo in the 90's!
Soccer helped distract me.
It was always something I was good at. I could run, jump, pass, shoot. The game has given and taken a lot. It has provided me cars, money, houses, apartments, vacations, you name it. I have lived a fantastic lifestyle. I have been able to represent my country at various levels but of course you always strive to be a part of the Senior National team. It is something I have been working for. I am disappointed to not have received an opportunity yet in my career but that’s not in my control. I will continue to work for that. To represent your country is the ultimate honour and I look forward to that chance in the future.
I am a big believer in making sure the people around you feel important and that they know how much you appreciate them.
These people will always be around to help you when you’re in need. I want people to leave any situation knowing that I am thankful for their impact on me. There were a couple of families that helped me grow up. My mother wasn’t always able to get my sisters and me to trainings when we were young and the people who stepped in and helped us during those times had an immense impact on me. I will never be able to thank them enough. If they read this, I want them to know that.
But, it can all be taken away in a moment.
My career hasn’t kept me in one place with one team for very long and I’ve learned to see it as a good thing because I have been able to meet so many great people plus see the world while I do it. Playing in Europe is every player’s dream and my opportunity came with KuPS FC in Finland. They said they were very interested but wanted me to come train to see how I liked it and if it would be something that would work for both parties.
So I packed my bags and headed to Helsinki.
KuPS had qualified for the opening stages of the Europa League and as a fan of both the Champions League and Europa League, I knew this competition would give all its players exposure to other clubs in Europe. I was excited for the possibilities.
Home stadium of KuPS FC in Kuopio, Finland.
I trained and trained.
I went from my swim trunks on the sunny beaches of Jacksonville to sub-zero temperatures and having to wear full pants and gloves for training. The sun was out for three or four hours a day and the rest of the day was pitch black. The quality of play was very good. Very technical players and a lot less physical. I always strived to use brain over brawn when I played because I wasn’t always the strongest. It took a while to get used to and I think my body was more tired than I realized. I had just completed a 34-game season in the U.S., playing almost every game.
After about three weeks of training, we were given a week off. I decided to jump on a plane and head to see my great friend, Nicolas, in Stockholm.
I had played with Nic during my time at Jacksonville Armada FC.
Since I had gone straight from our last NASL league game right to Finland, I was eager to rest during my off days.
Of course, I started to feel ill right when I landed for my week vacation.
I had a constant stomach ache, night sweats and some bowel troubles but it wasn’t anything I was worried about. We all have these times when you feel sick and think, in one or two days, you’ll feel better.
Over the week in Stockholm, I felt like we walked the whole city. I saw everything and felt terrible the whole time. I was so ready to let loose and enjoy all the sights and sounds of this great city. I couldn’t even enjoy a classic European nightclub with beautiful Swedish girls all around! I had to cut the night short and head back to the apartment.
Finally, on a Sunday, the day before I was scheduled to head back, I woke up feeling much better and enjoyed a nice breakfast with Nic and his mother.
We had planned to have a nice Sunday dinner and so Nic and I were about to walk to the market to get the necessary food for the night.
It was then that I felt a pain in my lower back.
The only way I can describe the pain was that it was comparative to overlifting and that I needed a chiropractic adjustment. I told Nic that I should roll out my back and he left to run to the store.
Over the next 20 minutes, the pain worsened and moved from my lower back into my arms and chest.
My jaw went numb and I couldn’t feel my arms.
Luckily my phone was next to me where I was on the floor and I was able to text Nic and tell him he needed to come home, something was wrong. I had trouble getting off the floor.
Before Nic returned, I managed to get myself up and brace my arms over the table in the kitchen to keep myself up.
I was able to reach my mother over a WhatsApp call just before we left to let her know that I thought I was having a heart attack and that I would update her as I could. I had a sobering thought that it may be the last time I spoke with her. I wished I had said more, but I hung up and waited for Nic.
He promptly helped me to the elevator and along with his mother, took me to the hospital.
It felt like there was someone squeezing my heart in their hands. That gives you an idea of the intensity of the pain.
The pain was intermittent and would come every so often. When I arrived at the hospital the pain had subsided and felt better while lying in the hospital bed. With Sweden’s universal healthcare, similar to Canada’s, I thought I may not get in quick. But since I was complaining of chest pain, I was able to. They drew some blood and ran an EKG. Within 30 minutes, the pain had returned and it was just as painful as before. It would last about 45 minutes and creep up my back and come into the chest just as before. They would inject me with liquid ibuprofen but it never seemed to stem the pain. It was the only thing they could give me until they figured out what was wrong.
My blood tests came back within an hour of being there and I was told I would have to stay overnight as they confirmed their findings. Every hour they would draw blood and compare it with the original. The results would say that my blood had elevated levels of cardiac enzymes, known as troponin. Troponin is an indicator of heart muscle tissue damage or death. The longer these levels stay high, the more worry of fibrosis or thickening of the heart muscle. When I arrived, my troponin level was 240 ng/ml. The doctor explained that troponin levels that high weren't a good sign.
With most heart problem indications, whether a heart attack, cardiac arrest, etc., troponin levels show between 5-15 ng/ml. Mine would hit 2,750 ng/ml.
I was sent into a surgery to check out my arteries to see if there was a blockage. I was surprised they wanted to do this because I had always eaten well growing up, I was very fit and always healthy.
The angiocardiography showed that the arteries were fine and that helped eliminate certain concerns with the heart. The whole time, I wasn’t told much and did my best to piece together what was going on from the tests that were being done on me. I am no doctor but my vast experience of watching Grey’s Anatomy really proved key in this moment!
I hadn’t been able call my family up to this point and it had been about five hours.
Nicolas Maripuu in front of the Swedish Parliament while walking around Stockholm.
Nic is an amazing guy.
He didn’t leave my side all day. He would be there translating and explaining all the ins and outs of what forms needed to be filled out and how I was going to pay for all this great care. He was able to speak with my mom later in the evening and explain what was going on.
After the surgery, I was moved into the cardiac ICU of the hospital to monitor my status. I told Nic to go home and get some sleep. Luckily, the pain only came back once that night.
I really believe in God-incidences and one of these occurred when my nurse spoke Spanish. I was able to communicate much easier with how I was feeling. All the other nurses spoke very little English and my Swedish was far from good!
I wasn’t able to eat for the first three days in the hospital until they figured out exactly what was wrong. I went for numerous MRIs, heart scans, CT scans, and continued blood tests. The works. My troponin level continued to rise every day. It would reach 2,750 ng/ml, a level that the doctor had never even heard was possible. I lost a lot of weight during those first few days; in the end I would be down 20 pounds in four days. Because I had complained of bad stomach pain, the doctors initially thought that I may have developed an auto-immune disease. They would ask question after question trying to pinpoint my answers with known diagnoses. I didn’t have any information to give my family. Without Nic being there for company, it would have been a very lonely time; thousands of miles away from home.
It had been a tough month for Nic as well. One of his best friends, Daniel Sundgren, a professional Swedish player for AIK in the Top Swedish League, was diagnosed with a blood disorder that had taken him out of the game indefinitely. Now with me in the same hospital that he had gone to weeks before, Nic felt discouraged. During my time in Stockholm, I had spent some time with Daniel and we became friends. He also spent a lot of time with me at the hospital and we all couldn’t believe two professional athletes had suddenly been taken out of the game and had their careers put on hold.
On Wednesday, they finally pinpointed the diagnosis.
I had no idea what myocarditis was. The doctor explained that I had contracted a virus that went to my heart and damaged my heart wall. It had caused the heart to beat abnormally and not eject the blood as it should. He said my career as a soccer player was probably over but that it was imperative that I do not exercise or do anything for six to eight months. After that time, I would be re-evaluated to assess the extent of the damage. Doctors always keep expectations low.
The only thing I really heard when he was speaking was that I couldn’t play soccer anymore.
The recovery was a very humbling experience. I struggled to cope with my identity. Relationships, communication, excitement all suffered. For so long all I had known was playing soccer. I had to think about what my next steps in life would be. What would I do for work? How was I going to make money?
As a professional, I had done well to save but suddenly those savings were all going to treatment and bills. I was back to the finances when I was 20 years old and that really impacted my psyche. I still needed to finish my undergraduate degree and I was feeling anxious. But I knew that I would have a chance to come back. I would wait the necessary time period of six to eight months and then gradually build back strength to return.
But what team would give me a shot after having a heart attack?
I couldn’t let it be known at first that I had experienced a heart problem, so I just let people know that I would be taking time away from the game and that I would do my best to come back.
My first game back in 2018.
My sister started a fundraiser without me knowing. I was pissed. I didn’t want any handouts. I had always worked for what I earned in life and my career. It was hard to sit there and receive such love, compassion and care from people let alone their hard earned dollars. In the end, over $20,000 was raised to help me continue living and help pay my ongoing medical bills in the United States. I am immensely grateful to the people who donated to me and I cannot express that enough. I cannot wait for my opportunity to help those who may find themselves in a similar situation.
My faith is very important to me. In all honesty, I do not outwardly project a lot of that faith but internally, and in private, it is very much a large part of my life. Another God-incidence was the opportunity to see the No. 1 myocarditis doctor in the world. At the five-month mark, he happened to be at the Mayo-Clinic in Jacksonville at the time of my treatment. My local doctor, Dr. Andrea Pautz, put in a lot of hours for me to try and set up a meeting with him. He saw me for an hour at no charge and reviewed all my tests and scans. Later that day, after the tests had been redone, he cleared me for full participation and a return to soccer.
*Daniel Sundgren was also cleared to return to full contact and has since fully recovered.
This was on Good Friday and I never thought I’d hear those words.
I had made it back.
Getting back to full fitness was the next challenge and knowing me, the first day back running after all those months, I dove right in and joined the guys doing the beep test. Looking back it was a terrible idea, but I almost beat the goalkeepers so it was a good start!
I am going to end this story here with a few key people I need to thank. There are so many but these people helped me through a very tough time:
My mother, Sheila. She flew over from Denver at the drop of a dime to be with me in the hospital and help me get back to the U.S. I love you very much and thank you for all you’ve done and continue to do for me.
My sisters. For your continued words of encouragement and support at all times. I am happy I have three sisters who know my feelings much better than I even do!
Nicolas Maripuu and his mother, Kerstin. I am indebted to you guys for life. The compassion and care you showed me by staying with me in the hospital is second to none. Thank you Kerstin for allowing myself and my mother to stay at your house while I recovered and for providing such great meals! I can’t wait to come visit again. Nicolas, we have shared many great times and thank you for all you did. You are truly a genuine friend and one of my best ones. Thank you so much.
Indira Musich. You may or may not read this but the start of our relationship wasn’t ideal and you along with your son selflessly welcomed me into your home and gave me a loving place to recover. I have immense love for you and the type of mom you are. You are very strong and I learned a lot from you.
Dr. Andrea Pautz. What started from me responding to your Craigslist ad for help around the practice and transformed into you becoming like a second mother and helping me recover quicker than I would have ever imagined, I cannot thank you enough. You and Howard have been such a blessing to me. I love you guys.
Jacksonville Armada FC. Mark Lowry, Nathan Walter, Aaron Pitchkolan, Gabe Zapponi and my teammates. Thank you for extending a hand to me when I recovered. You guys provided me a contract when you didn’t have to. You took a chance on me and helped me get back to full fitness. I am in debt to you guys for that. Thank you.
My Swedish Doctors and nurses. Tak! Tak! Thank you, thank you. Your kindness and hospitality made me feel at home thousands of miles away from my real home. The quality of care was second to none and I intend to pay every dollar of my bill as I can. Thank you Hospital Karolinska.