UAA basketball player gets second shot at life after open heart surgery

Published: Nov. 4, 2020 at 8:25 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - A pickup basketball game isn’t the place you’d expect to have a life-changing experience, but it was for the University of Alaska Anchorage men’s basketball player Tyson Gilbert. The 21-year-old guard transferred to UAA from Colorado State-Pueblo and was playing in an off-campus basketball game when he collapsed.

“I sat out the rest of that game and ended up playing the rest of the day,” Gilbert said over Zoom, recounting his fainting episode. “My mom is still cringing about that.”

Despite feeling normal after collapsing on the court, Gilbert’s teammates and family encouraged him to go to the doctor. The UAA Student Health and Counseling Center ran a series of tests on Gilbert’s heart in September before sending him to the Alaska Heart Center at Providence Hospital where they discovered he had a rare congenital heart defect. The next step was open-heart surgery to fix an artery in his heart that was cutting off blood to the rest of his body.

“I was crushed,” Gilbert said. “You would never think a 21-year-old would have to go through it.”

Gilbert flew home for surgery at the Children’s Hospital Colorado where he had a successful five-hour surgery that involved breaking and mending his sternum back together. Gilbert said the sternum is one of the biggest places that has to heal.

“I’m feeling pretty good,” said Gilbert nearly two weeks after the surgery. “The doctors say I’ve been recovering at a faster rate than they anticipated.”

Gilbert said his rehab is focused on walking. Soon he will be able to shoot free throws and dribble.

“I feel like I’m back in quarantine sitting on my couch,” Gilbert said with a laugh. “It’s driving me a little stir crazy just ready to get back out there with my teammates and coaches.”

Looking back at his experience, Gilbert says he struggled with the diagnosis at first because it meant he had to sit out the 2019-20 season, but he remained positive knowing this experience saved his life.

“I thought to myself, I should be grateful that they were able to find this, and I have a second shot at life,” said Gilbert. “Definitely an eye-opener.”

He will finish his fall semester online from home in Colorado before returning to UAA to attend classes for the spring semester. He won’t play for UAA men’s basketball this season but looks forward to joining the team for the 2021-22 season.

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