Erik Compton: 'It was brutal at first. Every breath felt like a stabbing'

He is the only professional athlete to have undergone a heart transplant – in fact, he's had two. James Corrigan describes a remarkable recovery

Wednesday 28 January 2009 01:00

It needed a special kind of somebody to divert all the chatter here yesterday as the European Tour gathered for this week's Dubai Desert Classic and prepared itself for this afternoon's crunch vote on who will be the new Ryder Cup captain. And nobody minded one bit when an American, of all things, stepped into the focus and abruptly halted the "Monty or Olly?" debate.

Usually only Tiger Woods, himself, would possess the power to redirect the spotlight so, but for the first time since 2003 the world No 1 is absent as his knee continues to mend. Instead the attention-stealing was left to a 29-year-old who is not even ranked in the game's top 1,400, whose most notable victory to date came in Morocco four years ago and whose best finish last year was a tie for 60th.

Erik Compton has rather more on his CV than all that, however. How about being the only professional athlete to have undergone a heart transplant? In fact Compton has had two heart transplants, the most recent of which came eight months ago following a heart attack. After that he stunned the surgeons by returning to competitive action within five months and in doing so came through a stage of Q-School and made a cut in a PGA Tour event. There is little wonder that the Dubai organisers so readily picked up the phone when John Daly withdrew last week and extended the invite to the Miami miracle man. With respect to their honourable intentions, if you cannot have the "world's best" – or in Daly's case the "world's wildest" – in your field then the "world's only" is the ideal marketing replacement.

For his part Compton did not disappoint yesterday. He played in the par-three exhibition match alongside the likes of Colin Montgomerie, Jose Maria Olazabal, Lee Westwood and Ernie Els and commanded a great deal of the interest. The crowds at the Emirates Course could not have known it as they watched on in admiration, but Compton had actually completed his greatest challenge of the week just to get there. "The main concern was the flight," he said as he explained his deliberations over undertaking the 7,800-mile journey. "Sure, some people worried, but I feel strong and feel like it's a great opportunity. It's one I had to take."

Compton will be attempting to take many opportunities in the foreseeable future and even for a professional who has not just undergone the most invasive surgery known to man, his next month would appear demanding. He has also been invited to play in next month's Honda Classic and in between these two prestigious events he is due to experience yet another life-changing moment. "I'll play Dubai, go back, have the baby, and play Honda," he laughed. Following all the medication he has had to take over the years, Compton was not sure he could ever father a child. Just one more apparently insurmountable hurdle cleared.

It has always been thus for Erik Compton, ever since, at the age of 12, he became the youngest heart-transplant patient in the history of the Jackson Memorial Hospital in his home city. Aged nine, Compton had been diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, an enlarging of the heart that hinders its ability to pump blood. A transplant was necessary but also by no means inevitable until a 15-year-old girl was killed by a drink driver. For years, Compton would write letters to the girl's grandmother. "I felt like I had such a great life, and I owed it to her," he told the American magazine Golf Digest last year. Despite advice to the contrary, Compton set out to show it could also be an active life.

"I was always an athletic kid, not one to sit inside and do homework, and played pretty much every sport you can think of," he recalled. "I even played baseball, which a lot of people get wrong. They think I turned to golf just because I couldn't play the other sports. I pitched and played shortstop actually four or five months after my first transplant. But that's when I fell in love with the game of golf. It is an individual sport and at the time a lot of the kids were stronger than I was. Being able to shoot low scores with the health condition I had, made me able to prove that I was strong."

It soon became far more than a means of validation. The best young golfer in his locality, Compton was awarded a scholarship at the University of Georgia and such was his progress that he appeared in the 2001 Walker Cup and in the singles he beat Gary Wolstenholme (Woods' conqueror in the 1995 match).

The pro scene beckoned, although as so often with collegiate talents, the paid ranks were not nearly so kind and he bounced around the game's lower league. There were afternoons in the sun, not least when he lifted the King Hassan Trophy in Rabat in 2005, a tournament won previously by Montgomerie and later by both Els and Padraig Harrington. It was enough to make him believe that the dream could still be delivered.

But then in September 2007, two days after he had missed the cut at a Nationwide event in Idaho, the pains in his chest told him of a more pressing reality. He had been out fishing and was within driving distance of Jackson Memorial. All he could think was thank goodness for the pulled tee-shot he had hit 48 hours before that had led to a nine and forced him to have the weekend at home. "If that hadn't happened I'm not here anymore," he said. "That's the greatest shot I ever hit. That hook, it saved my life."

It allowed him to drive to the emergency ward in the midst of the heart attack and thereafter the news finally came that after 16 years good service – "longer than I had my own heart" – a new one was needed. The 14-hour operation was performed in May and this time it was the motorcycle crash of a an ex-collegiate volleyball player which made a transplant possible. And so, once again, the convalescence began.

"I won't lie to you – it was brutal for the first month-and-a-half," he said. "It hurt to sleep. I'd have test tubes in the wrong position, and they're hitting me in the back of the ribs. Every breath felt like a stabbing."

Initially, Compton wondered whether scrabbling around on the golfing dollar-hunt was the best way in which he could spend time that suddenly seemed that much more precious. Yet he started to practise and the temptation grew. Could he resume his vocation? "I just couldn't see why not," he said. "It's not like we're out here boxing in an arena. We're trying to hit a golf ball in a hole. I even was able to shoot 66 three months after the heart attack, and I could barely even get out of a golf cart to get on to a tee box. It's a skill and I think if you have your hands and your eyes working, you can play the game. And you know, I just thought that Q-School was right there at home and I could play. Still, I don't think there was any doctors who believed I could do it after five months."

A few things made it possible for Compton to make it to that first tee in Florida last October, not least the dispensation he would receive from the PGA Tour to use a cart and, of course, the exclusion from the drugs tests he would obviously have failed. Compton was, and still is, on medication morning and night and in an attempt to soothe his sore bones – caused by his ribs being prised apart – he would have regular half-hour showers. Golfing legend already shows that he recovered after three rounds of 76, 75 and 77 to shoot a 68 in the howling wind to leapfrog 50 players to make it through. Everyone was stunned. Except Erik.

"The comeback was great, but it was nothing compared to the comeback I made getting myself to the hospital and surviving the heart attack," he said. "Hardly anyone, typically nobody who has had a transplant survives a heart attack because your heart literally explodes."

Alas, the day-time movie plot stopped there as he missed out on advancing to the final stage by a single shot. But by now Compton was big news in America and when he made it to the weekend in the Children's Miracle Network Classic – the first PGA Tour cut he had made since 2005 – he was positively prime-time. His story figured on the main network bulletins and the end-of-year awards duly came his way.

Fast-forward a few months and his recuperation is struggling to keep up with the progression of his fame. To the outsider it may seem cruel of the European Tour not to allow Compton to use a buggy this week but he knew that was in the tour's constitution and it is his plan to start walking anyway. Every day seems to bring a personal milestone on his return to fitness – two weeks ago he reportedly broke down in tears after completing a one-mile run – and here in the desert will herald another.

"I want to walk, that's what it's all about," he said. "The golf course is flat, and I've been practising hard, doing cardio every day, punishing myself to get ready for this season. Being healthy is the most important thing. It's going to be a test, it's going to be hard, if I do get myself in a position of playing well, the stress is going to be difficult, but at some point or another I'm going to have to gauge how to do that."

At least he has achieved one of his primary objectives and accepted that to the gawping galleries he will always be "the golfer with three hearts". As he tries to support his young family and re-launch his career he will surely even find the recognition useful as the sponsor's queue up to give him his shot. It is why he is in Dubai and it is why he will remain in the headlines. That donor may well have afforded his career a new lease as well as his life.

"This is a story of how my life has been," said Compton. "It will always be a story about overcoming. For the longest time, I was trying to become a golfer but in denial that I had had a transplant and I was trying to be like everyone else. I could always hide the fact that I had an issue, but now I can't. Now that I've come to grips with that and dealt with a lot of scary moments, I can try to play great golf. It's always going to be about my heart, but that's OK. That's who I am."

Stars that beat the odds

Nwankwo Kanu

The Nigerian forward underwent surgery on a heart defect in 1996. He later returned to football, and scored the winner for Portsmouth in last season's FA Cup final.

Jonah Lomu

Diagnosed with a serious kidney disorder in 1996, ongoing treatment culminated in a kidney transplant in 2004. Relaunched career but unable to recapture the form that propelled him to fame.

Neil Harris

Diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2001. Intensive treatment and surgery allowed the striker to return. Became Millwall's all-time top scorer earlier this month.

Jon Lester

Baseball star discovered he had lymphoma in 1996. After a remarkable recovery, Lester was the starting pitcher in the game that clinched the Red Sox' second World Series in four years in 2007.

Ciaran McCauley

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