When former Guyer star and current Northwestern player Bryce Jackson was going through a routine physical to get cleared for his junior season in Denton, he mentioned to the nurse he had been experiencing some chest pains.
Jackson's mom, Jennifer, was surprised because Bryce had never mentioned the pains to her. He originally mistook them for indigestion before bringing the pain up at the physical.
After answering a series of questions, Jackson wasn't cleared to play by doctors and was told he needed to see a cardiologist as soon as possible. An appointment was scheduled for the next morning.
"The doctor came in and asked if we had ever heard of a condition that causes athletes to suddenly have a heart attack and die," Jennifer said. "I was like, 'Excuse me? What are you saying?'
"She basically said that Bryce might have that condition. I started hyperventilating. They recommended that he have a transesophageal echocardiogram to rule out the condition, and it had to be done ASAP."
After going through the procedure with his mom, dad and Guyer coach John Walsh present at the hospital, doctors returned with good news. They were able to rule out any serious abnormalities and cleared Bryce to return to the field.
But the scare was enough to motivate Jennifer Jackson to find a way to help protect other Guyer players from potentially fatal heart failure. Her search led to Living for Zachary, which was started in honor of former Plano East athlete Zachary Schrah, who died in 2009 from sudden cardiac arrest during football practice.
The foundation offers noninvasive screenings that can help detect heart abnormalities in people ages 12-22. With Walsh's support, Jennifer reached out to Living for Zachary in hopes of bringing the heart screenings to Guyer.
Living for Zachary was on board and partnered with Heart Hospital Baylor Denton and the Denton Heart Group to bring free screenings to Guyer for the first time last August. Walsh said about 75 percent of the school's football athletes participated.
"You don't become intimately involved in something until it affects you," Jennifer said. "And it had tremendously impacted our lives."
The second year of free screenings is set to begin Saturday by appointment at Heart Hospital Baylor Denton, with times set aside for Guyer athletes Monday through Friday next week as well. Guyer is the only Denton ISD school partnered with Living for Zachary at this time, but the hope is to expand the free screenings.
"We wanted a two-year pilot program to see how it worked at Guyer," Denton school district athletic director Joey Florence said. "We want to see it one more year to see how we can expand it throughout the district."
While Walsh and Jennifer Jackson were trying to be proactive by offering free screenings, neither could have imagined the immediate impact the program would have on the Guyer community.
Camden Thrailkill spent more than two weeks practicing with the freshman football team last August before the first set of screenings was offered in the days leading up to the Wildcats' scrimmage against Euless Trinity.
While Camden's dad, Rik, remembered hearing about the heart scare Jackson went through, Camden was healthy and never experienced any symptoms growing up. Participating in the free screening was somewhat of an afterthought.
"I remember him going through the screening and thinking, 'This is a good thing but my son is fine,'" Rik Thrailkill said. "Not in a million years would this be my kid — that's what was going through my mind."
But when Rik Thrailkill received a phone call while working the tunnel at the varsity scrimmage, the unthinkable happened.
With his mind on the game, Rik didn't even hear the phone ring. It wasn't until the next day he heard the message doctors had left, indicating there was an abnormality found in the results of Camden's screening.
"It was pretty surreal," Camden said. "I didn't think they were being serious at first. It was all so sudden. It was crazy to hear, and it changed my life immediately, obviously."
A few days later, he was scheduled for a detailed endocardiograph to determine the severity of the red flag raised by the original screening. The family waited for several hours before Cam had to answer a set of basic questions from doctors.
Have you every had any shortness of breath? No. Any chest pains? No.
The answers appeared to be leading toward good news — that is, until the news was actually delivered.
"I'll never forget it," Rik said. "The doctor pushed back on his rolling chair from Camden and turned around. He looked straight at us and said, 'Camden has a significant heart murmur. He's going to need open-heart surgery.'"
After receiving that original diagnosis, the Thrailkills took Camden to receive second and third opinions from doctors in the area while discussing the different surgeries available.
The decision was narrowed to two options: a traditional open-heart surgery for mitral valve replacement or a unique robotic surgery option at Heart Hospital Baylor Plano.
A traditional procedure involves surgeons cutting through the patient's breastbone to access the mitral valve, according to the Baylor Plano website. But Camden wouldn't be able to take direct hits to his chest, which essentially ruled out a return to football and baseball.
After nearly three weeks of deliberation, the family scheduled both surgeries. They didn't decide on the robotic procedure until almost the last minute.
"Something just said to us this was the way to go," Rik Thrailkill said. "We prayed on it for a long, long time. We made that decision at the last second, and it was the best thing we ever did."
Camden lived a pretty normal life in the days leading up to October 6, 2016 — he went to school, hung out with friends and played some baseball.
That morning, Camden was more focused on how early he had to wake up than the surgery he was about to go through. The procedure was a gut-wrenching, five-hour ordeal for the rest of his family in the waiting room.
When the call finally came announcing Camden was off bypass and out of immediate danger, emotion flooded the room.
"Up until that point, I had never shed a public tear," Rik Thrailkill said. "Private, yes, but never public. We all lost it — just tears of joy."
Dr. Robert Smith told the Thrailkills that everything went well in the surgery. During the post-op discussion, Smith said that without the procedure Camden likely would have experienced heart failure or a stroke within two years.
For the first time in almost seven weeks, the family's constant feeling of worry and fear was replaced by hope and a look to the future.
Returning to the field
Because the robotic surgery was the less-invasive option, Camden was able to return to school just three weeks after the procedure. It was a long road to recovery though, as follow-up doctor visits continued to force him out of school and away from his friends during an exciting time of the year.
He missed homecoming and the Wildcats' run to the playoffs, among other first high school experiences. He had to fight through exams at the end of the year after missing a significant amount of class.
"For a while, it was kind of depressing," Camden said. "It was hard to see them doing all of that stuff and not be there. It wasn't the ideal way I wanted to start high school — I wanted to be a normal student."
As far as returning to the baseball and football fields, regaining his strength was a long and frustrating road. It wasn't until January when he finally turned the corner on returning to form athletically.
When baseball tryouts rolled around, Camden struggled on the first day of a four-day tryout. But he started to get into a groove and progress throughout the week. His ability to pop right back up from a big collision at first base late in the tryout gave both him and his family confidence knowing he was well on his way to returning to full speed.
While it took awhile to get back to playing at the level he was accustomed to, he made the freshman baseball team just a few months removed from heart surgery.
Camden went on to participate in spring practice with the football team after a successful season on the diamond, and is poised for a productive year at the junior varsity level as a sophomore in 2017.
"I'm excited for it," Camden said. "There's so much I'm going to get to do this year that I missed out on. I'm just excited for it to be a normal year."
"He was already a strong-character kid, but he's just at a different level now," Walsh said. "Before he went in there, Cam was a quality dude. Coming out of it, he's a guy that's going to be a leader in our program."
After experiencing the lifesaving ability of Guyer's heart screenings in Year 1, the Thrailkill family has joined Jennifer Jackson in stressing to other parents just how important the screenings are.
"When you can put a name and a face with a situation, it has a stronger impact with people," Jennifer Jackson said. "People have to understand it can happen to you. That's something we try to communicate with parents."
Part of what keeps parents and athletes away from free screenings is the fear of hearing bad news. But with both Camden and Bryce to look to as success stories, the hope is that participation grows.
"This is something you should do," Rik Thrailkill said. "It could save your son's life. It sure saved Camden's."