Former football player pushes for awareness about rare heart condition

Posted at 12:39 PM, Feb 05, 2021

There’s a toughness that comes with growing up in western Pennsylvania. Toughness is part of the culture, as is football.

To handle the way the game ended for Dominick Oliver, you need to be tough.

It came in 2005, during the summer before his junior season as a football player at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. Duquesne plays in one of the highest levels of college football competition, what is now known as Division 1 Football Championship Subdivision.

“I was lifting with one of my best friends. I didn’t even make it through my warmup set and I felt like I was going to pass out," Dominick said. “I ended up dragging myself through an aerobics room, where I ended up passing out.”

This Division 1 football player felt sluggish for days, as if he had a cold or the flu.

Dominick's mom, who worked at a local hospital, eventually stepped in.

“She was like, enough is enough, I’m drawing your blood and I’m going to run it in to get some tests done,” Dominick said.

Something was wrong with his heart and Dominick was airlifted to a Pittsburgh hospital.

“I vaguely remember the sound of a woman – I don’t know if she was a nurse or a doctor – basically saying it looks like this kid is having a heart attack," he said.

The diagnosis was giant cell myocarditis, a rare form of a condition of heart muscle inflammation.

Dominick's mother’s intuition discovered something that could have killed her son if it wasn't identified.

“There’s a good chance we wouldn’t even be having this conversation right now to be perfectly honest," Dominick said of his mom’s quick actions.

Dr. Leslie Cooper of the Mayo Clinic says myocarditis is often caused by a virus and is rare.

“In athletes, the likelihood of getting myocarditis is pretty low. If you’re in a city of a million people, young athletes there might be 100-200 cases,” Dr. Cooper said.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the condition was heavily talked about in athlete circles as questions rose about whether the coronavirus could damage the heart.

Dr. Cooper says the newest research shows the amount of myocarditis cases caused by COVID-19 is small, but athletes should still watch for symptoms.

The symptoms of myocarditis could mirror other illnesses, according to Genevieve Rumore with the Myocarditis Foundation.

“When you go to a doctor, they see these symptoms and they put you in this box, so to speak, ‘oh you’re in the flu box, you’re in the stomach virus box,’ and they don’t look any further. That is the challenge," Rumore said.

She believes myocarditis is underdiagnosed and is calling for more parents and patients to ask doctors about it.

"The sooner you rule it out, the better the outcome for the child," she said.

We were able to catch it early. That’s not the case for an awful lot of people, unfortunately," Dominick said.

It is unclear what triggered Dominick’s case of giant cell myocarditis 15 years ago. He still checks in with doctors every couple of years, but he has made a full recovery.

“I’ve been married 10 years now. We have a beautiful 3-year-old," Dominick said.

He never played for Duquesne again. Concerns about his heart were too much, but years later, he took the field one more time.

“I was able to play in a couple of alumni football games to bring closure to that chapter of my life. I think as an athlete, we all want to go out on our own terms," Dominick said.