Chiles junior Vinson flourishes after return from heart surgery

Chiles junior Vinson flourishes after return from heart surgery

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Chiles junior Vinson flourishes after return from heart surgery

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There’s an eight-inch scar on Allen Vinson’s chest that extends vertically from the base of his neck, across the sternum, to his belly.

Two puncture marks can be seen on either side, nearest to his lowest ribs. That’s where tubes entered his torso to drain fluid. They hurt the most to remove.

Vinson, a Chiles junior, is 16-years old and only a little over a year removed from his second open-heart surgery and third heart-related procedure. And he’s having a blast living life and playing highly competitive tennis once again.

“I love the sport,” Vinson said. “There’s always a player to play. It’s not like football or basketball where there’s a clock. You have to finish the match. You can play some pretty epic matches.”

Vinson, whose father, John, was an assistant coach for the Florida State men’s tennis team for seven years and a head coach at other universities for several years, was named a first-team All-Big Bend performer after his sophomore season.

But getting back on the court was never a given after Sept. 24, 2012, the day he had a six-hour surgery to install a mechanical valve to replace his previously repaired aortic valve. When he finally did, he was euphoric.

“It feels great,” Vinson said. “When you have time off from a sport, it makes you appreciate what you’re doing and definitely how lucky you are to be playing because it can be taken away from you at any second.”

The early years

It wasn’t long after Allen was born on Jan. 13, 1998, that John and Kim Vinson were told there was something wrong with their firstborn’s heart.

“It was kind of a shock,” John Vinson recalled. “It was surreal when he was born and then within 24 hours he’s on the helicopter to Shands (in Gainesville), mainly because they didn’t know how serious it was. He was in no danger, but they didn’t know that. They diagnosed him, brought him back and he was about four months old when they did the first procedure.”

The initial procedure, called an aortic valvuloplasty, was performed and required threading a catheter through Allen’s tiny carotid artery to the heart, where an balloon was used to open the valve in an effort to improve blood flow.

“It was just a waiting game to see how he did,” John Vinson said. “We kind of adjusted to it. I can think of many parents with worse situations, kids with cancer, that kind of thing. It wasn’t like that.

“We knew at some point he’d need open-heart surgery. I didn’t know he’d have two of them by the time he was 16, but he was normal — running, playing tennis, riding bikes, playing football, playing basketball. He may have felt different, but to him it was normal.”

The surgeries

At age nine, the aortic valvular stenosis plaguing his heart needed a surgeon’s touch, and in July of 2006, Vinson went under the scalpel. The complications surrounding Vinson’s aortic valve involved leakage and blockage. Without normal blood flow, the heart works harder, and the heart muscle can grow too large for the valve, requiring surgery.

“We were looking at two possible procedures,” Allen Vinson said. “They were either going to take out my pulmonary valve, put it where my aortic valve is and replace the pulmonary with an artificial valve, or just repair my aortic valve and move nothing around.”

The cardiac surgeon opted for the repair, and within two weeks Vinson was back on the court hitting balls around.

Ideally, the aortic valve repair should have lasted longer than the six years it did.

Coming off a sophomore season in which he played at No. 1 for Chiles and received accolades for his budding play, Vinson turned in a solid summer. He and his father were in Fort Myers for a national tournament when symptoms began to occur.

“I’d kinda been feeling a little bit weak at practice the week before, and I thought, ‘Ah, it’s just hot. It’s the heat,'” Allen said. “In my second match, I defaulted the first set. I was just feeling terrible. Chest pains, out of breath, all my muscles were just feeling dead.”

Fortunately, a checkup was scheduled a few days later in Gainesville, and father and son stopped in. After several tests, it was determined that surgery would be needed. And this time, something more permanent would be required.

The Vinsons went to Shands for pre-op in August, but a sore throat postponed the surgery. Then on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2012, Allen woke up early to view ESPN “College Gameday” prior to FSU’s win over Clemson and took those happy feelings down to Gainesville the next evening. Surgery was set for 6 a.m. Monday morning.

“It’s just a lot of waiting,” Allen said. “I was pretty nervous, but at that point it’s out of your hands.”

Vinson’s faulty aortic valve was taken out and replaced with a mechanical valve made of carbon fiber. As opposed to a bovine tissue valve which has a maximum life of 10 years but doesn’t require taking blood thinners, the mechanical valve should last 30-40 years. Vinson will be on blood thinners for life, but the the likelihood of another surgery is significantly decreased though not totally removed.

“By then there should be technology where they don’t have to open me up,” he said. “Hopefully they don’t have to.”

Recovery and return

It took five days before Vinson left Shands and returned to Tallahassee. With a cracked sternum, using arms for anything, even pushing up off a bed, was a no-no, not with the risk of hurting a broken bone. There was a lot of lying around and for an energetic kid, it was hard to take.

But seven weeks later, Vinson was back on the clay courts of Golden Eagle Country Club, hitting with personal coach Owen Long, a former North Florida Christian star and FSU player under John Vinson.

“His ability to overcome adversity at 16 and return to the court in under three months each time says a lot about his character,” Long said. “A lot of kids his age, it could almost dishearten them. He doesn’t allow the bad cards he’s dealt to bring him down.”

Vinson had to get back in shape, and his weekly workout regimen consisted of running sprints, performing plyometrics, weight lifting and five to six training sessions a week with Long.

In January 2013, he returned to tournament play, the same weekend as his birthday. It was definitely something worth celebrating.

“I won my first two rounds, and I beat the No. 2 seed,” Allen said. “I’d beaten him before, but it was different this time. I played really good. I ended up losing that tournament in the semifinals, but I was pretty happy with that. It was reassuring.”

The future

The outlook is rosy for Vinson, who played at No. 1 again for Chiles in the spring. He made the finals of the city championships.

Vinson also made a regional for the first time. In one match, he was down 5-2 in the second set after losing the first set 6-2. Faced with his opponent’s seven chances at match point, he staved off elimination, won the set in a tiebreaker and went on to win the match. His game philosophy mirrors the approach he took with his health problems.

“Never giving up and knowing it’s happened to me before,” Allen said. “It can happen to anybody, you just have to keep making plays.”

Vinson hopes to follow in his father’s footsteps and play Division-I tennis somewhere, perhaps even at his dad’s alma mater, Wake Forest.

“Having coached him for four years now, he’s the most talented kid that I’ve seen,” Long said.

On this Thanksgiving day, Allen Vinson is thankful for all his doctors in Gainesville, whom he also hopes not to see unless he’s working in the medical field. It’s one of several options he’s considered for his life to come, one which now looks as solid as the mechanical valve tucked away behind a scar on his chest.

For now, he’ll just try to be a kid, play tennis with fun and fervor, and enjoy the benefits of coming out the other side of his life’s storms with a bit of clarity.

“My surgery has helped me for when I’d get nervous before a test or before a tennis match,” Allen said. “It’s nothing like waiting to have open-heart surgery. It puts things in perspective a little bit.”

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