How open-heart surgery changed my life and my story

To: Those facing an unexpected challenge,

From: Shareef O'Neal (As told to Lauren Brill)

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To those facing an unexpected challenge,

This is the start of a new life for you.

Three years ago, I woke up in a hospital bed, and my maternal grandfather told me the same thing. He told me I was about to begin a new life.

At the time, like you, I was confused and scared. I still couldn’t believe this was happening to me. And I didn’t know what my grandfather was talking about.

Up until then, my life felt perfect. It felt like a movie. My dad is NBA Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal, and I was ranked the number one basketball player in California. In my senior year of high school, I won a state championship. And by the time I was 17 years old, I’d go to Lakers games, and people would line up to take pictures with me. They’d walk past NBA players and come straight to me. It was insane.

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The path that I was on seemed so clear. I’d play Division 1 basketball before following my dad’s footsteps to the NBA.

However, for my entire childhood, without me knowing, the game I loved and the life I lived were both in danger.

For my entire childhood, without me knowing, the game I loved and the life I lived were both in danger.

When I was five years old, my heart would beat fast and heavy. Doctors told us it was a minor issue, and I got something called a heart ablation, which scars tissue in your heart to block abnormal electrical signals. After the procedure, doctors told my parents I was fine, so I continued playing sports. I tried nearly every sport: basketball, soccer, football, and even a little skateboarding.

I was the kind of kid who wanted to play whatever sports my friends were playing. But when I was 15 years old, I got my first two college letters from LSU and UCLA. Once I realized that I could be on the same level as the people I watched in the NBA, I fell in love with the game of basketball and dropped all those other sports.

I told myself, “This is what I want to do. And this is what I am going to do.”

Even so, I was actually a lazy basketball player. Coaches would tell me I needed to have heart, but I brushed off the advice. I only wanted to play when it was game time. In middle school and high school, I never put in the extra work. Sometimes, I think it was because, deep down, my body knew what my mind refused to recognize.

See, this whole time, I still had that same feeling in my heart that I had when I was five years old. It would come on randomly, and I would get a little lightheaded. It wasn’t as bad as when I was five years old. And it would only last a couple of seconds. So, I just pushed it to the side, and I didn’t tell my parents.

After high school, my life seemed to be going as planned. Coming off that state championship, I had a lot of momentum. I decided to go to UCLA, where I planned to see time as a freshman. But before I got cleared to play, a trainer at UCLA started asking me questions about my heart and insisted I wear a heart monitor for five days. While wearing the monitor, I got that feeling that I have gotten my whole life – the one where my heart races and I get lightheaded. A few days later, around 7:00 PM, my trainer brought me into the locker room and told me to call my mother.

My mother rushed over, and my dad joined us on speakerphone. I walked into this room with a whole bunch of doctors, who had a presentation ready for us.

Right away, I thought, “This is it.”

I knew something was very wrong.

Doctors diagnosed me with an anomalous coronary artery – a congenital heart defect that caused an artery to grow in the wrong place. As the doctors tried to explain what was wrong, I began to zone out because I was so devastated. My mother and I both broke down and cried throughout the presentation. It was absolutely crushing.

They told me I could play basketball for the rest of my life, and I could be fine, or I could go to practice tomorrow and go into cardiac arrest and die. My options were to stop playing sports and do my best to keep my heart rate down, or I could have open-heart surgery. But even open-heart surgery wouldn’t guarantee I could ever safely step foot on a basketball court again.

This wasn’t supposed to be my life. This wasn’t a turn I thought I would take on my journey.

This wasn’t supposed to be my life.

After that presentation, which was in September of 2018, I took a few days to process everything. Ultimately, I realized I didn’t want to wake up every day worrying that today would be the day my heart stopped. So, at 18 years old, my whole life came to what felt like a screeching halt, and I decided to have open-heart surgery.

I met with three doctors, including Dr. Frank Hanley, from Stanford. He told me he was the LeBron James of heart surgeons.

When I asked him what that meant, he said, “It means I am the best at what I do.”

I knew right then that this was my guy.

In the weeks leading up to the surgery, I was mentally in a very bad place. I didn’t want to tell anyone, but I didn’t want everyone questioning why I wasn’t playing. So I announced it to the world via a video and turned my phone off for two days. As I expected, there was a ton of commotion when I went to school. Most people were supportive, but others made hurtful comments  – some innocently.

 A group of young kids who came to meet our team said to me, “We saw you are going to have heart surgery. Are you going to die?”

I told them, “No, I am not going to die.”

The truth was I didn’t know what would happen. And the fact that people were having those thoughts and asking those questions terrified me.

But I just had to keep going.

On December 13, 2018, with my parents by my side every step of the way, I underwent open-heart surgery at Stanford Children’s Health. Thankfully, the surgery went perfectly.

But just like my grandfather said, when I woke up from surgery, it certainly was the start of a new life.

Doctors made me get up and walk. That was one of the most confusing moments.

I thought, “Oh, I’m about to walk. I’m going to be fine.”

When I stood up, I could not control my body. I felt so new to walking – like a baby trying to take its first steps. A year prior, I was the number one basketball player in California, and now I can’t even walk. Just that thought left me in tears. My body was so weak, and I got tired so quickly. I didn’t feel like myself at all. When I went into the hospital, I was 6-9 220 lbs, but I dropped down into the 170s.

I wondered, “How could I ever be the same again?”

Shareef with his father, Shaq, trying to walk after open-heart surgery.

Around that time, a 17-year-old kid stopped by my room to give me a present. He was a soccer player, and I think he was on his third or fourth heart surgery. While I couldn’t speak, I listened to him as he talked to my family and me. He told us he wanted to go to UCLA and do something with movies. It wasn’t a question of if he would go back to school.

 He kept saying, “I AM going back to play soccer.”

“I AM going back to school.”

Hearing him talk so confidently inspired me to do the same.

At that moment, I told myself, “I AM going to play basketball again.”

Doctors started making me walk every day. First, I just walked to the door and back. The next day, I walked down the hall. After four or five days, I walked around the whole floor. They couldn’t get me to go back to my bed.

The doctors said they never saw anybody progress so quickly. I was supposed to be in the hospital for about three weeks, but I got out in about ten days.

A year and change later, I finally got cleared to play basketball again. I flew straight from the doctor in Palo Alto to my little brother’s AAU team’s practice in Los Angeles. I was so tired, but practicing with them was one of the best feelings of my life. It felt incredible to be back on the court, playing a game that was nearly taken away from me forever. That night, I went home and cried tears of joy.

After my surgery, I transferred to my dad’s alma mater, LSU, in part, for a fresh start.

It has been more than three years since my open-heart surgery, and I am not a lazy basketball player anymore. I love basketball more than ever, and I have more drive than ever. I want to prove wrong anyone who didn’t believe I could make a comeback. 

Courtesy: WHOMK

Like you, I have learned that I can handle the adversity thrown at me, and I am very proud of myself. Since my open-heart surgery, I appreciate life more, and I don’t take any day for granted. Also, I am passionate about giving back to people and organizations like the American Heart Association. Whenever I can, I share my story with those who need to hear it.

While I was at UCLA, a mom stopped me and said she was walking around the whole school looking for me. Her son was about to have open-heart surgery. I spoke to her for two hours, and to this day, she still sends me letters telling me how I positively impacted her and her son’s lives.

Some people call me Zipper Boy because I have a scar running from the top of my sternum to right above my abdomen. At first, I hated the scar, but now I embrace it because it’s symbolic of my new life.

For me, a new life means a unique story, a different path, and an even more powerful message.

I still have the same dreams I had when I was 15, including making it to the NBA one day. But now, I not only can inspire how athletes play on the court, but I can also encourage people like you to fight for your lives and never give up on your dreams.

My advice is to go through your darkest days with a good attitude. Don’t let obstacles stop you. Lean on the people who love and care about you most. Know what you want and go for it.

Whether you are about to have major surgery as I did, or your unexpected challenge is entirely different, please know that this new life you are about to live, this new story, can also grant you the same blessing it gave me. And that blessing is a much stronger, more grateful, and determined heart.

You got this!

Shareef O'Neal
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