HARWICH ─ Each time Monomoy athlete Ryan Meehan sets foot on the soccer pitch or prepares to race down the track in a meet, he savors the moment and gives it his all. Mostly it's because he loves sports, but it's also partly because he knows there is a chance he might not play again.
When Meehan was days old and about to be discharged from Cape Cod Hospital, medical personnel from Bass River Pediatrics decided to run one last blood pressure check before he was sent home, testing his pressure on both arms. The routine test saved Meehan's life.
“We found out that he had three congenital heart defects,” said Meehan's mother Lane.
Her son was diagnosed with a hole in his heart, a bicuspid aortic valve, and an arterial anomaly in which a main artery leading to Meehan's heart was crushed, preventing blood from flowing.
“When I was 18 days old they did open heart surgery through my back to fix it,” he said of the artery.
The risks were massive. Nicking nerves around the artery could result in anything from blindness to death.
“He was frozen for four days,” said Lane. “They lower the body temperature so low so they don't have to put them on a heart machine and don't have to give them blood. When he came out of the surgery, everything was terrific, but he was kind of gray.”
More than a decade later, Lane still gets emotional remembering her son in the neonatal intensive care unit at Children's Hospital, a mass of tubes and wires surrounding him. Fearful of further hurting him, she was reluctant to touch him, but Meehan's doctor broke through her worries by having her check his blood pressure post-surgery.
“I'm looking at this baby that's unmoving,” said Lane. “In retrospect he was a genius because I felt his pulse and it was stronger than I'd ever felt it. So I knew he was OK and that he was going to live.”
Given that Meehan had actually flatlined during the procedure and was resuscitated by a nurse, that surge of hope Lane felt was momentous, as was finally taking her youngest son home to officially meet his siblings, Lindsay, Chris, Tyler, and Connor.
Since then, Meehan has done all he can to lead as normal a life as possible, discovering a passion for sports at an early age.
“Very early on I realized there's no wrapping Ryan in bubble wrap,” Lane said. “Inside of him is this enthusiasm for anything he tries. His older brother taught him how to snowboard when he was three years old and he competed at five. He has a first degree black belt in Tae Kwan Do.”
Though he's not allowed to lift weights or wrestle, Meehan is a serious soccer fan. So far the highlight of his 15 years has been getting to play with Connor, a 2016 graduate of MRHS, on the varsity soccer team when he was in eighth grade.
“It was so meaningful for me because we played center back together and he was always there to protect me,” Meehan said. “My real motivation is Connor. He was the one that gave me a talk after I really learned how bad my heart was. He told me, 'Ryan, I know you love sports and I want you to do great in this world, so I just need you to carry on and I'm so proud of you.' My inspiration is to keep proving to him that I can be a great younger brother.”
In spite of his heart problems, Meehan's looming concern is losing the ability to be an athlete.
“My biggest worry is not playing sports,” he said. “Sports are my drive. Sports are the reason I do well in school and the reason I'm happy in life.”
His future in this regard will become clearer after an important medical appointment on May 19 in Boston, during which he'll undergo tests that will determine whether he needs valve surgery now or can wait a little longer.
“The longer I wait, there is a better chance of survival,” he said. “I'm confident in my doctors, but I really don't want to get that at this age. I want to wait longer.”
The next surgery will either be a valve repair, or a complete replacement, either with a synthetic valve or the valve from a pig. Meehan said if such a procedure is required at this point, he'll opt for the pig valve since it will allow him to play sports again in the future, even though another surgery is likely within 20 years.
Though Meehan said he tries not to concentrate on his physical limitations, there are times when they are apparent. Lengthy runs can make Meehan feel as though his heart is beating out of his chest, and he gets chest pains as well. Yet he strives to get stronger, rather than using his illness as an excuse.
“It's definitely a little harder because I have to remember that I can't push myself as hard as other people do because I could end myself, but it also gives me a drive,” Meehan said. “Yeah, I can't push myself as hard, but I can't use it as an excuse to not be as good as someone. I use that as an excuse to be better than them.”
“He knows his body better than anybody. I feel very comfortable that if he knows his heart rate goes up or blood pressure is dropping, he'll stop,” said Lane. “I think a lot of people would just give up. You can't hold Ryan back, because that's who he is. I love his enthusiasm.”
When not working to improve his soccer skills or his sprint times, Meehan concentrates on his grades with plans to become a cardiologist.
“I know how much my cardiologist did for me, and I want to be able to give back and save other kids' lives,” he said.
“I think he'll make a great cardiologist having gone through what he's gone through,” Lane added.
While her son focuses on his future, Lane has made it her mission to encourage everyone to have the blood pressure test that Ryan had that led to his diagnosis.
“It doesn't cost a dime to check blood pressure in all four extremities. They would find out that a child has a heart condition,” she said. “To me it's unconscionable that these schools don't do this.”
Lane said that many of the student-athletes making headlines for sudden deaths during games due to unknown cardiac issues could potentially have been saved by such tests.
“I had all my children tested immediately after him,” Lane said. “If it were my child that died on the field and I knew afterward that there was a very simple test, it would kill me.”
Meanwhile, though concerned about the surgery that will be a part of her son's life sooner or later, Lane is looking forward to cheering Ryan on at future track meets and soccer games.
“The main thing that Ryan wants to get across to people is not to hold back just because you have a disability of any sort,” she said. “I sometimes forget that he is a cardiac patient, until he takes off his shirt and I see the scars. He's always going to be a cardiac patient. That will never change for the rest of his life, [but] if you worry about things, it's just wasted energy. You can't change what's going to be.”
Instead, she thinks back to when surgeons wanted to repair the hole in his heart.
“When he was three they told me, open heart surgery next year. I said, 'He's not going to need it.' We went back the next year and there's no hole. There's no scar tissue. It's gone. You see miracles all the time. Why can't my son be one?”