Minneapolis (AP) ―
Dec 26, 2006 2:59 pm US/Central
Rookie T-Wolf's Organs Reversed
Randy Foye has been a professional athlete only six months. But he's already made history. The 23-year-old basketball player is almost certainly the first sports figure who can say his heart is truly in the wrong place.
Foye, a Minnesota Timberwolves rookie, was hoping nobody would notice. But he was born with a rare condition called "situs inversus" in which his heart and other internal organs are reversed -- a mirror image of the ordinary body.
As an athlete, he has never been held back by the condition. But for a while this past summer, the star from Villanova University was worried it might sink his career.
"I was trying not to say anything," said Foye, afraid that it might scare off teams before June's National Basketball Association draft. "I was going to let them find it. If they didn't find it for themselves, I wasn't going to say anything."
His secret came out at the annual pre-draft camp in Orlando, Fla., where teams check out the top talent. He aced the fitness tests, but when the medical exams began, he saw a puzzled look on the nurse's face.
And he 'fessed up.
"Everything's reversed," he told her. "My heart is on the other side."
"Wow," he remembers her saying.
Before long, nurses and doctors from every team were swarming around him.
"I was in there an extra hour and a half," he said. "They wanted to know everything about my condition."
Situs inversus occurs in only about one of every 10,000 people, and is believed to be caused by a recessive gene. When the heart is on the flip side, it's known as dextrocardia. In this case, it's the heart and more: the liver, gallbladder, blood vessels and so on.
Typically, experts say, people with the condition live a normal life. But it can cause confusing symptoms, such as appendicitis pain on the lower left, not right, or heart attack pangs on the right, not the left.
Foye, who was born in Newark, N.J., didn't know about it himself until age 7, when he was hospitalized for two weeks with pneumonia. His doctors discovered it by accident, and told his grandmother, who was raising him.
"They said everything is normal, there's nothing to worry about," Foye said. But he remembers that his grandmother waited until he was home from the hospital to tell him, and that she tried to soften the blow. "She said, 'Your heart is on the other side. You're not the only person in the world like this.' "
If she was worried about him playing sports with his unusual condition, she tried to keep that to herself. "I just had so much love and passion for sports, she wouldn't take that from me," he said.
Back at school, he tried to keep it quiet.
"I didn't want anybody to say, 'Oh, he's different,' " Foye recalled. But word started to get around. One day his second-grade teacher, Mrs. Goldstein, announced that he had something "really special" to tell the class, and so he did. "Everybody wanted to touch me," he said, and feel his heart beat on the "wrong" side.
Eventually, the fascination died down.
Meanwhile, Foye grew into a stellar basketball player and won a scholarship to Villanova, in eastern Pennsylvania. There, he told the team's physician about his condition, and nobody seemed concerned, he said. If anything, they joked that he played so well that "if his heart is on that side, keep it over there." As a senior, he was named 2006 Big East Player of the Year.
Then in June, on the verge of turning pro, Foye started getting nervous. How would NBA teams react?
Foye and his agent hatched a plan: If any team raised a concern, "we were going to get the best cardiologist, like, in the world, to put out a statement ... to say I'm perfectly fine," said Foye. "I've played with this forever. Why is this going to stop me now?"
In fact, it shouldn't be a reason to disqualify an athlete, said Dr. Barry Maron, a cardiologist at the Minneapolis Heart Institute who has advised professional teams on screening athletes for heart conditions. "Having your heart on the wrong side is itself not a problem," Maron said, as long as it's a healthy heart.
As it turns out, Foye's worries were unfounded. "Not a single team called me to express concern," said Steve Heumann, his agent.
On June 28, Foye was the seventh player picked in the NBA draft. Chosen first by the Boston Celtics, he was traded twice that night and ended up as a member of the Timberwolves.
Jim Stack, the Wolves' general manager, said the team did its own research and "came to the realization that this was a non-issue."
Foye, he said, "is one of our best guys in terms of endurance and stamina," adding, "that's one of the things that appealed to us."
Since the draft, Foye's medical condition has been mentioned in Sports Illustrated magazine. And now he's a footnote in the online encyclopedia Wikipedia. Under "Situs inversus," it lists just one "notable person" with the condition: Randy Foye.
"It's good to be a part of history, " said Foye with a smile, "and not just basketball."
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