It’s elementary school gym class—boys and girls are racing around, throwing kickballs and softballs around the gym. The kids run until they are drenched in sweat. At 10 years old, it’s not about impressing one another, it’s not about who is the best at what, it’s about running around and having fun. Mark Huelsenbeck, an elementary school boy who is just trying to keep up with his peers, over exerts himself, vomiting all over the floor.
Huelsenbeck, a Penn State senior, was born with tricuspid atresia—a congenital heart disease in which the tricuspid valve is missing. Those with tricuspid atresia have an absence of the valve between the heart’s chambers, resulting in restricted blood flow to the heart and lack of oxygen. The condition makes it extremely difficult for the patient to breathe. A person with a normal functioning heart receives blood through four valves. Mark receives blood through a single valve. Because of this, surgery is often needed throughout a patient’s life.
Mark received his first surgery when he was three years old—which isn’t uncommon for those with the defect. Follow-up surgeries are common, though may not be necessary until later in life.
Living with tricuspid atresia has limited Mark’s ability to exercise for long periods of time. Because his heart does not receive blood properly, his team of cardiologists could not clear him to play any intense, physical or contact sports. As a young boy learning to understand the severity of this heart disease, Mark had to sit out of many activities, left to watch his friends from the sideline.
“Watching my friends play baseball or try out for football or run around the soccer field was tough. I always wanted to play these sports, and knew that I couldn’t, so I did feel somewhat cheated in that sense.”
Even though Mark is unable to play contact sports, he has done everything he can to remain in good physical condition. He runs on the treadmill for as long as he feels comfortable, but more importantly, he lifts weights everyday—an activity that his doctors have considered safe since he was in middle school.
“Since I couldn’t play sports like my friends, I’ve always had a strong motivation to stay healthy and stay in great physical condition. I go to the gym daily, I push myself as hard as I can, and I’ve kept up with this routine since I was younger. I strive to be in the best physical condition possible even if I can’t be physically playing sports.”
Because of Mark’s inability to play contact sports, he found his long-term passion in playing golf. In fifth grade, when every other boy his age was trying out for football, soccer, or basketball, Mark began to play golf. For the years to come, the golf course has become Mark’s escape—a place he can go to clear his mind, a place he can go to enjoy time with his friends, a place he can go to play his sport at a slow, comfortable pace.
“My dad told me when I was in the fifth grade that if I couldn’t play football, or play the sports with my friends, then I was going to become the best golfer possible. And that was going to be my thing. That was going to be my sport. I picked up a set of clubs that year and I haven’t put them down since.”
The sport of golf is a reflection of Mark’s life—it requires little physicality, but demands strategy, accuracy and precision. The outcome from his condition are dependent on his actions—he chooses to stay in great physical condition but also knows his limits and understands how one decision, or one shot, effects the future. It is crucial for Mark to stay healthy—to maintain a healthy blood pressure, to exercise as best he can, because he is at risk for certain conditions, specifically congestive heart failure, later in life.
It has been said that 90 percent of the game of golf is mental. Mark’s mental attitude toward his condition is synonymous with playing round after round of golf—patience is necessary, discipline is crucial.