Erik Compton on his third heart has shown more mettle than anyone in the game
Erik Compton left a series of unusual messages on his friends' cell phones on May 20, 2008. He lay in his hospital bed, about to be hooked up to a machine that would breathe for him while another machine cleaved open his rib cage to clear the way for doctors to orchestrate, if all went well, his third shot at life.
"Kelly, it's Erik," Compton said on one voice mail. "Uh, listen. I'm going in for surgery tonight, so when you get this message in the morning I'll have a new heart in me, bro. Just wanted to tell you I love you, man, and say hi to your family and everybody, and I'll talk to you when I wake up, all right? Later." Click.
Dr. Si Pham performed the transplant at Miami's Jackson Memorial Hospital, and complications made it unusually long — nearly 12 hours. When Compton awoke much later, he had more lines coming out of him than a marionette. He had hallucinations. He couldn't feel one of his legs.
And yet Compton not only lived, but remarkably, his golf game has blossomed in the ensuing three years. He made two cuts on Tour in 2009. He played in the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. After Monday-qualifying for the Northern Trust Open at Riviera earlier this year, he shot a closing 64 to tie for 25th. And on June 26, Compton won his first Nationwide Tour event — the Mexico Open — ensuring that he'll make enough money on that circuit in 2011 to join the PGA Tour full-time next year.
Says Dr. Pham, "It's unheard of for a patient to be playing sports on a national level like this."
Compton, 31, seems to credit his improved game, at least in part, to his brushes with death. "It's come easier to me now with my second transplant," he says. "As a young guy I tried so hard. I'm not grinding like that anymore. There's an I-don't-give-a-sh-- factor. I've been kicked in the head and had so many issues, it's just exciting to be alive. It's been like a rebirth for me."
For the two-time transplant recipient and 2012 PGA Tour rookie, the rebirth was a painful one. It started nearly 20 years ago, when he was a boy with a bad heart who literally refused to die.
EVERY DAY at 10 a.m., Compton takes 15 pills that kindly tell his body not to kill his heart. He takes the same 15 pills at 10 p.m., because Compton's heart is pre-owned, and the rules of cardiac transplantation are as inflexible as the Rules of Golf. A foreign object is a foreign object.
His daily drug regimen is nothing new. Compton was 12 when he got his first transplant in 1992, and 28 when he got his second, in 2008. You don't want to jump into weighty matters of life and death over dinner — he's dining at a four-top with his caddie Phil Smith (an EMT in his spare time) and Canadian Tour pal Kelly Murray — but small talk seems especially small with Compton. Who has the time? He's three years into his second donor heart. He's a husband, to Barbara Casco, whom he married in 2008, and a father, to daughter Petra. He's still young. What if he needs another transplant? Has anyone had three?
"I don't really look at that stuff, because s--t, you'll make yourself sick with all that," Compton says. "What are the chances of a guy being ranked 230th? What are the chances of a guy being ranked 230th with one transplant? What about two transplants? My success hasn't been about avoiding a question like that. It's more about not going there. It's like saying, 'When is the end of your life?' Nobody can predict that."
On second thought, some small talk might have been nice. Moments before his second transplant, Compton lightened the mood with jokes in the operating room, because to obsess over the biological act of living is to fail to experience life.
"How would you like living," says Charlie DeLucca, Compton's first swing coach, himself a victim of multiple heart attacks, "knowing that in eight or nine years you've got to go through this again — maybe, if you're lucky?"
Compton first met Murray, a Moe Norman disciple, on a driving range in Canada, where Compton asked for an anti-hook tip. Says Murray, "I had him do this Moe Norman drill where you stand on your right foot only and swing really hard and hit it as high as you can. It requires coordination and commitment, because it's a scary motion. It takes practice. Erik ripped it first try. He goes, 'Oh, I get it.' "
Compton was always physically gifted. As a child growing up in Miami, he played shortstop and pitcher in baseball, quarterback in football, and ranked first in presidential fitness tests. But at age 9, he was diagnosed with viral cardiomyopathy, a disease that inflames the heart muscle, limiting its ability to pump blood. He began to vomit and see spots by age 11 and was put on a list to receive a new heart. Just after midnight in late February 1992, a drunk driver killed a 15-year-old girl. Peter Compton woke his 12-year-old son for the trip to Jackson Memorial.
After the transplant surgery, with contact sports off the table, Compton gravitated to golf and to DeLucca, the director of golf at International Links/Melreese C.C. in Miami. "He always thought he was better than everybody," DeLucca says with a laugh.
Erik's anti-rejection pills caused him to gain weight. DeLucca let him take a pull cart in club competition because the boy wasn't strong enough to carry his own bag. Peter Compton recalls helping pudgy Erik make his way up to elevated tees.
Compton eventually shed the weight and soon climbed the junior rankings, then went on to lead Georgia to two SEC titles and to make the 2001 U.S. Walker Cup team.
For all of Compton's amateur accolades, though, he struggled as a pro. He got into a four-man playoff at a 2004 Nationwide tournament but lost on the first extra hole. He won three times on the Canadian tour, and at the 2005 Hassan II Golf Trophy in Morocco, making enough money to buy his own place, but more mediocrity followed. Touring golf was a grind, and while Compton made cuts, he wore down on the weekends. Even now, he isn't exactly sure why his game sharpened in 2011, but he credits hard-won perspective.
"Everything is a miracle, man," he says.
Exhibit A: The average life span of a donor heart is 10 years. Compton's first new heart lasted 16 years. Then, on October 3, 2007, he suffered a heart attack after fishing. He drove himself to the hospital and collapsed in the emergency room, where doctors put a stent in his chest, working so feverishly that they didn't bother to close the curtain. "It was like watching a horror show," Peter Compton told the St. Petersburg Times. Thus began a nearly eight-month wait for a second transplant, during which time Compton said he was "the strongest I've ever been mentally" and "in the zone."
A lot happened during that strange limbo. He met Barbara, a beauty from Buenos Aires. They soon conceived a child, which was surprising given the fact that Compton didn't know if he could have kids after taking countless bottles of potentially damaging immunosuppressants. (They married in August 2008.)
During this time, in March, Compton went to the WGC-CA Championship at Doral, where he had worked with teaching pro Jim McLean. Compton had recently been fitted with a pacemaker.
"I had droopy eyes and weighed about 125 pounds," says Compton, who, at 5'8", normally weighs 150 pounds. "I was in the locker room, but I was hiding behind a post because I felt maybe I shouldn't be there. I wanted to see friends. I didn't know if I was going to see them again."
Having followed Compton's career, Phil Mickelson sidled over to talk. To this day, Compton wonders what the guys thought, seeing him like that. Says Mickelson, "I've heard Johnny Miller and Chip Beck say a quote that I really like, which is that it's not what you accomplish in life, it's what you overcome. Erik's accomplishments are incredible given what he's overcome."
The 12-hour transplant operation that May was another miracle for Compton. It became possible when Isaac Klosterman, a former volleyball player at the University of Dayton, died in a hit-and-run while riding his motorcycle in Florida. Once again, one family's tragedy was another's miracle.
Dr. Pham has done about 30 heart transplants a year since 1990, and they're never a sure thing. You can do an echocardiogram to make certain a heart is worthy of donation, but a surgeon won't know for sure until he cradles the muscle in his hands. He'll want to take a good look and squeeze the arteries to make sure they don't feel calcified. Getting a heart out of the donor and into the operating room isn't simple, either. "There's a lot of timing involved," says Dr. Mark Drazner, the medical director of the Cardiac Transplant Program at the UT Southwestern Medical Center. "You can't open up the patient and take out his heart until you know the new one is a go. And then it's a four-to-six-hour operation."
While recovering from the surgery, Compton discarded his golf gear, figuring he'd never play again. But he began to watch events on TV, imagining his head on the winner's body. Less than six months later, using a golf cart, he tied for 60th at the Children's Miracle Network Classic at Disney World — an aptly named forum for a man playing with his third heart.
Compton went back to walking courses, but he'll always have unique challenges related to his health and stamina. When he's too weak to practice, he can be quite short off the tee upon returning. This past June, he nearly left the Mexico Open before it even started. A hurricane was bearing down on the host town of LeÃ³n, and Compton has enough trouble maintaining his strength for 72 holes without weather-related suspensions. He'd also gained a sponsor's invitation to the following week's AT&T National on the PGA Tour, and he considered going home to prepare for the more lucrative event.
Self-preservation is understandably important for Compton, but so is playing golf for a living. A day after he shot a final-round 82 at the 2010 Memorial, he woke up at 4 a.m. for a U.S. Open sectional. He shot 69-66, then survived a three-hole playoff, breaking down upon realizing he was in. "He has to be like that," DeLucca says. "He doesn't have time for foolishness. He has to do well now."
The hurricane in Mexico halted play Thursday and Saturday, forcing Compton to play 27 holes Sunday. He made a tough two-putt after a rain delay, and hit his approach inside three feet on the next hole, the 12th. "That's when I thought I had a chance to do something special," Compton says. He made eight birdies for a come-from-behind 65 to win by two shots. "It was meant to be," says Barbara, who followed the action on the Internet. "It's almost beyond belief," McLean says.
"People around me were emotional," Compton says, "but I'll be more emotional when I win on the PGA Tour. I just want to build on this. Charlie [DeLucca] was very happy. He's had a lot of heart issues himself. We've been in the hospital together having procedures done next to each other."
When he returned from Mexico, Compton went to the AT&T National, where players who knew his story gave him a hero's welcome. He saw ex-Florida Gator Camilo Villegas, a college rival.
"I'm finally out here with you guys," Compton said.
"It's about time," said a smiling Villegas.
Compton missed the cut, chalking it up to being tired from playing five straight weeks. But back in Miami for a scheduled biopsy, Compton learned that his body was again trying to reject his heart.
"You go from tremendous highs to the lowest lows," says Eli Compton, Erik's mother.
Adds Erik, "I probably was in rejection when I was winning."
It was a scary time, but after upping the dosage of his immunosuppressants, Compton came out of rejection and went back to work.
Eli Compton and Lillian Klosterman, the mother of donor Isaac, keep in touch via Facebook. Together they've seen almost every side of organ donation. A third transplant is not impossible for Erik. "After a third transplant I could not guarantee he would go back to golf," says Dr. Pham, who has become a family friend.
The future could get increasingly complicated. Requisite medications often lead to other health problems, and patients who receive blood transfusions develop antibodies that can act in opposition to the antigens of a potential donor.
These things would keep Compton up at night, if he let them. To truly live, he must avoid thinking about whether he'll live. He must ponder things like the 2012 Sony Open in Hawaii, where he'll likely kick off next season. He's offered to give Pham golf lessons, but the doctor doesn't play. Instead, they're planning a fishing trip. Perhaps they'll talk about tying flies, or maybe tell jokes — anything to forget, for a few moments, the collision of random and man-made miracles it took to be there, throwing a line in the water.