Kenneth Horsey was digging through a pile of spare ribs with his family after church. It was Easter Sunday 2018 and Kenneth had a lot to look forward to in the coming months.
Soon Kenneth would be heading to his prom and graduation from Seminole High School in Sanford, Florida. Then he would move to Lexington, Ky., To attend the University of Kentucky on a full football scholarship.
At 6-3, 335 pounds, the offensive lineman could put up a lot of odds. But during the meal, he felt a searing pain in the side.
Maybe he had eaten too quickly, he thought. He apologized from the table and went to the bathroom. The pain became excruciating. He started to vomit and had a fever. His vision blurred. The only thing he could think of was getting into the tub.
He was able to shout at his parents, who came running. Kenneth was so hot to the touch that his father sprayed him with shower water. Her mother called 911.
At the hospital, doctors ordered a battery of tests and analyzes.
The next day, Kenneth was diagnosed with endocarditis, an infection of a heart valve caused by bacteria. Bacteria produce what is called vegetation. Pieces of vegetation can break off and travel around the body. In Kenneth’s case, a lump went to his kidney; that’s what caused the searing pain.
One of the doctors who treated Kenneth first told his parents he would probably never play football again.
“My heart just fell,” said Shari Horsey, Kenneth’s mother. “How do you tell your 18 year old who has just been accepted into a college team that he will no longer be able to play football?”
Soon after, however, a surgeon told them otherwise.
Because the heart muscle was not damaged, Kenneth could continue to play. But first, the surgeon said, he had to perform open-heart surgery to remove the growth from the valve.
“I was completely in shock,” Kenneth said. “But I also understood it was necessary and I just had to rely on my faith to stay strong.”
To remove the growth, the surgeon had to break Kenneth’s breastbone. After the heart repair was done, the sternum was repaired with titanium plates.
In less than two weeks, Kenneth was back home and focusing on cardiac rehabilitation.
For several weeks, the muscular teenager couldn’t lift anything over 5 pounds. He walked daily. He also did exercises with deep breaths to widen his lungs. Due to his renewed hopes of playing professional football, he knew he had to surpass himself.
“I was walking a few hundred feet and felt like I was running 2 miles, breathing hard and dripping with sweat,” he said.
Physical endurance was only part of Kenneth’s challenge. Doctors warned his parents that a more difficult obstacle was to get an 18-year-old to come to terms with everything he has endured.
“We tried to be as positive as possible, but also realistic,” Shari said. “There were a few times we had to talk him out of desperation, but we knew he was going to be able to replay if he was patient.”
In July 2018, Kenneth moved into his Kentucky dormitory. He continued his rehabilitation there, assisted by coaches, trainers and doctors. At the end of July, he was able to start running with his teammates.
He sat down this fall. He played four games in 2019 but hasn’t started. He started eight games in 2020, even though he broke his hand in training camp and needed surgery to fix it. He’s started every game this season, capped off with a Citrus Bowl victory on New Years Day.
In December, he will obtain a bachelor’s degree in communication. He is applying for a master’s degree in social work. He could continue to play during his graduate studies.
Over the past year, Kenneth has put his communication lessons to good use by sharing his story as a heart disease survivor. He was inspired to do so by one of his former teammates – Courtney Love, now the team’s director of player development – who “stressed that we should be of service to the community that gives us so much.”
Kenneth has spoken at several American Heart Association Heart Walk events and has coordinated and planned CPR training only for the UK football team and staff.
“In grade one I didn’t want to be known for my heart surgery, I wanted to be known for my playing on the pitch,” he said. “Now I’m very comfortable talking about it because if I can help someone get through a similar situation then I’ve done good.”
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Kenneth was recently appointed to the South Eastern Conference Community Service Team in recognition of his accomplishments on and off the field.
“We’re especially proud that he’s taking care of himself and paying it forward,” Shari said. “If her story can help other people, especially young people, it is a wonderful thing.”
By Diane Daniel
American Heart Association News
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