Monday, February 19, 2018

Henderson senior overcomes heart defect to plan medical career

By Jimmy Daniell Isaac
May 22, 2017 at 12:11 a.m.
Updated May 22, 2017 at 5:43 p.m.

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Editor's note: This is part of a series of stories profiling East Texas high school graduates.

HENDERSON — A congenital heart condition kept Tyler Starling on the Henderson Lions sidelines, but he found another way to be with and help his teammates.

Starling is among 215 Henderson High School seniors set to graduate Friday at Lion Stadium.

Starling, 17, was born with tetralogy of Fallot, a rare condition caused by a combination of four heart defects present at birth. He underwent surgery at 5 months, and in later years, he noticed he tired sooner and more easily than his peers in physical education classes. But Starling started playing football from the fourth grade until his eighth-grade year.

"And that's when they told me to stop," Starling said. "I had open-heart surgery again, where they had to go in and replace my heart valves my summer before becoming a freshman. While I was in the hospital then, I was laying there, and I had a big old pacemaker beside me, and the doctors came in every day and tried to tell me that my heart function was not getting better and that they might have to put a pacemaker in permanently."

His dreams of playing in the National Football League ended, but he said he faced a tougher hurdle: "My biggest challenge was me not playing sports with my friends like I had been doing growing up."

So, after a year, he asked Henderson High School's new athletic trainer about becoming a student trainer.

It was a relationship that he and coach Colby Barron say benefited everyone.

"(Coach Barron) has been a big part of helping me, too," Starling said. "We talk a lot outside of school, too, and he tells me that even though I have a heart problem, that there is a lot that I can do with my intelligence instead of running the football every Sunday on TV."

Barron was starting his first year at Henderson when Starling asked to join three years ago. At that time, Starling was among about five students who wanted to help the athletic training staff, but Barron said Starling has positively affected the culture.

"This year, he's kind of put the word out that we have a lot of fun in what we do," the coach said of Starling, "and this year, I had 30 show up to my first meeting. He keeps the mood light, and he's done a good job. The guys love him, and the coaches love him."

Along with remaining on the sidelines for Lions games and practices, Starling also has developed a love for medicine, specifically optometry. He joined his school's health science program and has shadowed nursing and physician rotations at East Texas Medical Center-Henderson and other local clinics.

It was during a visit with doctors at Henderson Eye Clinic that he saw optometrists use a hands-on approach and magnifying technology to help people's sight.

"But I feel like me being an optometrist is the way I want to go," he said, adding that he plans to attend Texas A&M University in Commerce.

Barron is confident that Starling will succeed, regardless what career he chooses.

"My first day here, he came up and asked me if he could help me out, and he's been here since Day 1," the coach said. "He's respectful, makes good grades, and whatever he decides to do — I don't know what it is, medical field-wise — if he wants to be a doctor, he should be a good one."

Starling said he wants to be regarded as a person for more than his heart defect, and he never realized it more than during a doctor's office visit several years back.

"I noticed stuff got real when I went to my doctor's office one time and the Make-a-Wish Foundation people were there, and I was like, 'I'm not disabled or anything,' and I didn't see myself fitting into that category with people that I see on TV who have cancer," Starling said.

The complex heart defect he was born with occurs in about five of every 10,000 babies, according to the National Institutes of Health.

"A lot of people with my heart condition don't make it to be this age and graduate," he said, "which makes graduation so special to me."

Previous graduate profiles



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