During her 2002 singles match for East Stroudsburg University, Becky Sieg repeatedly got sick.
“I’d gotten very dizzy and everything was spinning,” the former Gettysburg High School athlete recalled. "I felt like I was going to pass out. My heart was racing. But as an athlete, you push yourself because you think this was normal.”
ESU coach Al McCormick thought poor diet and anxiety were to blame for the vomiting.
“I just thought she was a nervous bag of bones,” he admitted.
To be safe, however, McCormick made sure Sieg went to a Lehigh Valley hospital to get checked out.
Sieg heard the same story there.
“The doctor said they were going to keep me because my heart was racing,” she said. “He thought it was anxiety and said that if I calmed down and my heart rate lowered, he’d let me go.”
Life-saving moment: That commentary continued at several emergency rooms over the next three years, until Sieg’s final college match in 2005 at New Jersey Institute of Technology.
Sieg and her doubles partner upset NJIT’s previously unbeaten tandem before she began exhibiting familiar symptoms during her singles match.
McCormick did not allow her to finish. Sieg was furious with her coach, but her tune changed a few hours later. So did her life.
Sieg heard the same spiel that night from a doctor at Gettysburg Hospital, which was near her family home. Thankfully, there was a shift change before she was discharged.
Dr. Stefan Rosenbach came on duty and ordered an electrocardiogram, which measures the electrical activity of the heart. It was Sieg’s first EKG.
It saved her life.
A few minutes later, Sieg flatlined multiple times. She was revived and eventually diagnosed with arrhythmogenic right ventricular dysplasia, a rare form of cardiomyopathy. It is a genetic, progressive heart condition in which the muscle of the right ventricle is replaced by fat and fibrosis — which causes abnormal heart rhythms. There is no cure for ARVD, which is found in one out of every 5,000 people and accounts for one-fifth of sudden cardiac death in people 35 and younger, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
“Dr. Rosenbach saved my life,” Sieg said. “Coach Al saved my life."
Roller-coaster ride: It’s been a roller-coaster since.
This year, Sieg was near death before receiving a heart transplant at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.
The 36-year-old wife and mother of two survived one bout of mild rejection this summer and does outpatient cardiac rehabilitation three times a week at Gettysburg Hospital.
Sieg walks on a treadmill, rides a stationary bike, walks stairs and lifts light weights. It is a long, slow road back. Predictably, she is impatient.
Raising money: The Biglerville, Adams County, resident’s biggest fight — in her eyes — is raising money and awareness for ARVD research. She recently held a fundraiser that brought in $5,000.
“It’s what has driven me after the transplant,” Sieg said. “[Doctors] said it was a miracle that I survived, so I look at it as the reason why I’m here. I don’t want someone else to go through what I did.”
A family issue: The battle has hit close to home. Sieg’s older brother, Travis Martin, has the same condition and had an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator put in. Also a former ESU tennis player as well as a triathlete, the 38-year-old Martin had to halt all physical activity after his diagnosis and likely will need a heart transplant in the future.
Sieg’s son, Jackson, is an ARVD gene carrier; so is one of Martin’s two sons, Bryce.
Sieg’s painful journey began as a 12-year-old passionate about sports.
“You always hear the saying, ‘no pain, no gain,’ ” Sieg said. “But I told my mom [Kerry] that I had chest pain and that I wasn’t supposed to feel like this. I felt like I was going to pass out.”
Sieg’s pediatrician blamed it on growing pains and anxiety. Those answers stayed with her until her final college match.
McCormick arrived at ESU two years earlier, in 2002, when Sieg’s brother was a senior.
“I was hired on a Tuesday morning and on Thursday morning we were headed to Slippery Rock for our first match,” McCormick recalled. “I didn’t know anyone’s names. Travis got me through the first few matches.”
Close bond with brother, Travis Martin: Sieg followed Martin to ESU because of their close bond as siblings. They had the same circle of college friends. They now share the same battles.
Martin said he showed no sign of ARVD. He finished the Lake Placid (New York) Ironman triathlon in less than 11 hours. He also completed two marathons.
“Before I got tested [in April 2005],” Martin said, "doctors said that because I played sports and did the Ironman that I didn’t have [AVRD] or I’d be 6 feet under. Now I have an ICD in my body and I live life a different way.”
Martin is a teacher and tennis coach at New Oxford High School in Adams County. He’ll have to rebuild his life again after a heart transplant. In the meantime, he rebuilt the New Oxford tennis programs. Before his arrival 14 years ago, the boys and girls teams each won three matches in the previous five seasons.
The girls' program has won at least 10 matches each year in the last decade, capped by a league championship last season. The boys have enjoyed similar success.
Passion for photography: Sieg found her passion for photography, which she is looking to get back to once she gets through the first year after the transplant. It’s been a rough time since the surgery, but there was no alternative.
“It was like I was dying,” she said of the weeks leading up to the transplant. "When they found me a matching heart, doctors found out that my heart was worse off than expected. My right side was not functioning. I was living off half a heart.
“Right after the surgery, I was in unimaginable pain. But it’s getting better each day."
No longer asking why: Sieg and her brother stopped asking why this happened to them, though it was hard at first. Martin allowed himself 20 minutes for self-pity. He then looked around.
“Walking through Johns Hopkins Hospital, I saw a kid with screws coming out of his head,” he said. "He was 8 years old. Then, I was like, ‘Why am I crying?’ ”
Martin shed more tears in the hours leading up to his sister’s heart transplant because of her uncertain future.
“That was one of the hardest things I’ve ever been through,” he said. “I looked at the face she had going into the surgery and was like, ‘Is this it or just the next part?’ ”
Uncertainty remains: ARVD means uncertainty remains for Sieg, Martin and their children. But they’re unwilling to have their lives sidetracked by something they can’t control.
“I’m all in for helping find a cure,” Sieg said. “It’s a process I don’t want to see [my family members] go through.”