BATON ROUGE, La (BRPROUD) – February is National Heart Month, raising awareness about heart disease. In an open letter with The Unsealed with LSU basketball player Lauren Britt, Shareef O’Neal explains how open-heart surgery changed his life and nearly cost him the game he truly loves.
O’Neal recalls that when he was five, he noticed how fast his heart was beating and doctors told him it was a minor issue. Doctors performed cardiac ablation, which is when scar tissue in your heart blocks out abnormal electrical signals, and said he would be fine.
As he took the sport of basketball more seriously, hoping to play at the same level as those in the NBA, he talks about when he received his first two college letters.
“I was 15, got my first two college letters from LSU and UCLA. Once I realized I could be on the same level as the people I was watching in the NBA, I fell in love with basketball and quit all those other sports,” O’Neal said.
He started his college basketball career at UCLA. Before he was allowed to play, his coach asked him about his heart health and insisted that he wear a heart monitor for five days.
“While wearing the monitor, I felt like I had my whole life – the one where my heart is racing and my head is spinning. A few days later, around 7:00 p.m., my trainer brought me in the locker room and told me to call my mom,” O’Neal said.
That’s when O’Neal was told he could play basketball for the rest of his life and be fine, or attend practice tomorrow and go into cardiac arrest and die. He had the option of quitting sports to help keep his heart rate up or undergoing open-heart surgery.
At the age of 18, O’Neal decided to have surgery. He was nervous before the day of his operation. He wondered if he would be okay after the operation. He remembers waking up after the procedure feeling like the start of a new life.
O’Neal says he doesn’t take his surgery for granted and sees his scar as a symbol of his new life. His message to anyone going through similar challenges is “you get it.”
To read Shareef’s full open letter with The Unsealed with Lauren Britt, click here.