Home / Sports / Transfer to Quinnipiac may have saved Tiefenwerth's life

Transfer to Quinnipiac may have saved Tiefenwerth's life

K.J. Tiefenwerth’s journey to playing for No. 1 overall seed Quinnipiac in NCAA hockey tournament includes having open-heart surgery to remove tumorJohn Hassett 860-918-0648

K.J. Tiefenwerth’s journey to playing for No. 1 overall seed Quinnipiac in NCAA hockey tournament includes having open-heart surgery to remove tumor

Nancy Tiefenwerth sat in the parking lot, looked at her son and cried.

It was supposed to be a routine doctor’s visit for her son, K.J., who was transferring from UMass to Quinnipiac and needed to take what was supposed to be a simple physical.

It wasn’t.

The transfer documents from Quinnipiac required a cardiac clearance. She asked the family doctor to refer her to a cardiologist.

They made an appointment and an EKG was performed. The results were normal, but the doctor noticed that the documents included language about an optional echocardiogram, which offers a more precise picture of a heart’s health. It was up to K.J. if he wanted to take the test.

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“So the doctor says, ‘Do you have five minutes?’” Nancy Tiefenwerth remembers.

In those five minutes, life changed for K.J. Tiefenwerth, of Bellmore, L.I.

The doctor came back and told them that there was a tumor, most likely benign, on the valve of his heart; a papillary fibroelastoma.

“I took the test and it was there, clear as day. It looked like an M&M on a string wobbling off the valve of my heart,” K.J. says of the initial scan.

“They showed me and my husband and we saw this tumor hanging off of this part of his heart, and just as he breathed it would move,” Nancy says.

The doctor recommended that they get some opinions and consult a surgeon.

“What do you mean a surgeon,” Nancy remembers asking.

K.J. TiefenwerthJohn Hassett 860-918-0648

K.J. Tiefenwerth

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While shaken by the initial news, she thought that they would be able to treat it with medicine, or maybe go in arthroscopically to remove the mass. The doctor told them that, normally, open-heart surgery was needed in cases like K.J.’s.

“I looked at my mom and her face kinda dropped,” K.J. says.

They contacted a doctor that the family knew and scheduled an appointment for the following morning. After a sleepless night in the Tiefenworth household, Dr. Ezra Deutsch confirmed the diagnosis and agreed with the recommendation for surgery. There were more visits with doctors and additional confirmations of the initial diagnosis. Of the four heart doctors he met with over the next two days, K.J. says three recommended immediate surgery. Dr. Robert Kalimi ultimately performed the surgery at Southside Hospital in Bayshore, L.I., on Tuesday, June 18, 2013, five days after the initial diagnosis.

“He ran his forefingers down my chest and he said: ‘We’re gonna split you open, we’re going to snip it, we’re going to sew you back up and you’re going to be good to go,’” K.J. Tiefenwerth remembers. “I cringed when he ran his fingers down my chest.”

* * *

The Tiefenwerths are a hockey family.

K.J. grew up playing hockey, tracing his older brother C.J.’s grooves in the ice. Their younger sister, Allee, plays high school lacrosse.

Any family with a hockey player in it knows the sacrifices that have to be made in order to play and improve. Rinks are scarce and ice time is hard to find. Weekends are spent shuttling back and forth from the house, or hotel, to the games.

And as K.J. began to show promise, the car’s odometer got a workout. Before long, K.J.’s dad Dennis was driving him to Connecticut twice a week for practice. He’d do his homework at the rink, or in the car, go through practice and then get back in the car for the two-hour ride home. Home games were in Connecticut, and they’d routinely play at rinks around the tristate.

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“We never had a home game that was close to home,” Nancy Tiefenwerth says.

K.J. Tiefenwerth has open-heart surgery just three weeks before being best man at brother C.J.'s wedding.

K.J. Tiefenwerth has open-heart surgery just three weeks before being best man at brother C.J.’s wedding.

Following two years of prep school and two years playing junior hockey in Boston, Tiefenwerth enrolled at UMass in 2012.

But something wasn’t right. The coach he had committed to, Don (Toot) Cahoon, stepped down before his freshman year and Tiefenwerth clashed with his replacement, John Micheletto. He had a meeting with Micheletto and told him that he planned to transfer. Quinnipiac had recruited Tiefenwerth before he committed to UMass, and the Bobcats pounced on the opportunity to bring him to Hamden, Conn.

“The main thing that I liked was his hockey IQ,” Rand Pecknold, Quinnipiac’s head coach of 22 years, says of Tiefenwerth. “There are a lot of kids at this level that can make plays in practice, but when the pace picks up in games they struggle a little bit. K.J. has that unique ability to make plays when the pressure is on.”

* * *

For 30 minutes, K.J. Tiefenwerth’s heart did not beat.

The entire surgery took somewhere between two-and-a-half to three hours, Kalimi remembers, with an hour on each end for K.J. to go under anesthesia and to come out of it, and another hour for the blood to recirculate through the body once the procedure was done.

He opened K.J. at the breastbone and attached his heart to a heart-lung machine, or CPB (cardiopulmonary bypass), which maintains blood and oxygen flow during surgery.

“As a heart surgeon, it’s not as complicated as it sounds,” says Kalimi, the vice chairman of cardiovasclar and thoracic surgery at Southside Hospital. “We stop the heart from beating for about 30 minutes so we can open the chamber, remove the tumor and restart the heart.”

While surgeries like K.J.’s are routine for Kalimi, he did say that K.J.’s tumor was “very rare” and that papillary fibroelastomas make up “only one out of every 10 tumors.”

“Heart tumors are rare in general,” he said, adding that the success rate in cases like K.J.’s is very high.

That said, there were still obvious concerns heading into the surgery, including the possibility that K.J. might not be able to play hockey again. If, for some reason, the valve where the tumor was resting needed to be removed, his days playing hockey would be over.

Naturally, when he woke up, it was his only concern.

K.J. Tiefenwerth delivers his best-man speech at his brother's wedding.

K.J. Tiefenwerth delivers his best-man speech at his brother’s wedding.

“He wasn’t even coherent and he was trying to ask the doctor a question, but we couldn’t even hear him. We weren’t sure if he was in pain or what. We didn’t even know what he was trying to say,” Nancy Tiefenwerth says. “Finally he wrote down ‘DID YOU REPLACE VALVE?’ That’s all that was on his mind, because hockey is his life.”

The recovery was grueling, both physically and mentally.

It would be a week before he could walk, and longer still before he could take the ice again. Tiefenwerth said it was a good year before he began to feel normal again.

But before putting on his blue and gold sweater, Tiefenwerth wore a black tie.

His older brother, C.J., who wouldn’t leave K.J.’s bedside following the surgery, got married a few weeks later and K.J. was there as the best man.

“The doctor said before the surgery, ‘Listen, he is going to be at that wedding. I can’t tell you that he’ll be dancing, but he will be there,’” Nancy Tiefenwerth recalls.

K.J. stood at his brother’s side and gave his speech.

“There were 200 people in the room and you could hear a pin drop,” Nancy Tiefenwerth says, choking back tears.

And K.J. danced.

* * *

When he arrived at Quinnipiac in the fall, it was uncharted waters for everyone.

Tiefenwerth had no idea how his body would respond following the surgery, and Pecknold had never coached a player who had gone through anything remotely similar. The learning curve was steep.

K.J. Tiefenwerth with his nephew Carter.

K.J. Tiefenwerth with his nephew Carter.

“It’s a very unique situation and I would say that I had to adapt in terms of allowing the athletic trainer to do his job,” Pecknold says. “First and foremost we want K.J. to be healthy and safe. There were times in the first year where they would say ‘Hey, he’s done for the day’ and I would have to say ‘OK’ and adjust and adapt.

“Now, I treat him like any other player. Unless they tell me, ‘Hey we have to modify something’ — and they haven’t — I’m not gonna cut any corners for him and I don’t think he wants me to cut any corners for him. He wants to be treated like an elite Division I athlete, which he is. We push him hard and I don’t think K.J. would want me to treat him differently from any other player.”

While Tiefenwerth has emerged as a key contributor this season for the Bobcats — who won their NCAA Tournament opener 4-0 over RIT on Saturday as the No. 1 overall seed — it was a long time getting here.

Adjusting to a new program as a transfer can be tricky. NCAA rules force transfers to sit out for a year, so there’s a natural feeling of isolation. Tiefenwerth’s heart condition compounded that; he’d spend as much time with trainers, if not more, than with his teammates.

“Any time you take a transfer and they have to sit for a year, it’s really difficult mentally,” Pecknold said. “They don’t feel fully engaged and part of the team. It’s a hard year to endure and it’s hard thing to keep working every day in practice to realize, hey, this is gonna make me better for next year.”

But Tiefenwerth did put in the work, and his teammates noticed.

“Guys would hop on the ice early so I wouldn’t feel like I was out there by myself,” he said of the things teammates would do to make him feel included. “They took some notice that I was out there on my own and they would come out there and help me out.”

Tiefenwerth wore a heart monitor and the red, non-contact jersey during practices. There were times he would have to pull himself out of practice because he was pushing himself “to kinda try to keep up with the guys and prove myself,” which in turn elevated his heart rate. He and Pecknold would meet often during his redshirt season, as both were going through something that was completely foreign. He’d get extra work in with Brijesh Patel, the strength and conditioning coach, three or four days a week as he began to ramp up his recovery, and by the end of that first year could feel himself regaining his pre-surgery form.

“There were several times working out where I felt a difference. It was night and day from when I got into Quinnipiac from when I left,” Tiefenwerth said. “I knew I would be able to compete again after I left campus at the end of my first year.”

* * *

Tiefenwerth made his Quinnipiac debut at UMass-Lowell on Oct. 17, 2014. Had he not transferred, Tiefenwerth might not have been playing hockey that day, or in this NCAA Tournament.

The doctors couldn’t tell Nancy Tiefenwerth exactly how the tumor developed on her son’s heart. He could have been born with it or it could have been hereditary, though she says there’s no history of heart disease in her family. They just know that they caught it just in time.

K.J. Tiefenwerth has played in every game this season for the top-ranked Bobcats.John Hassett 860-918-0648

K.J. Tiefenwerth has played in every game this season for the top-ranked Bobcats.

“The key in this thing is to find it before it causes a real problem,” Kalimi says. “If it grows, it can become very mobile. It can travel into the brain and cause a stroke. Or it could lead to a heart attack. It could block an artery.”

“I try not to think about it,” K.J. says.

The NCAA does not require student-athletes to undergo electrocardiograms, and instead follows the American Heart Association’s recommendation of a 14-point checklist to help determine cardiac health; high blood pressure, chest pains, and heart murmurs are among the warning signs on the screening process. The organization cautions that EKGs can miss conditions such as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a thickening of the heart’s muscles that can lead to sudden cardiac death. A 2014 study by the AHA found that cardiovascular issues were to blame for the deaths of four NCAA athletes that year.

Quinnipiac follows the NCAA’s guidelines on EKGs and recommends that transfer athletes have their personal doctors perform physical exams. The fact that Tiefenwerth’s doctor spotted the optional echo scan, and that Tiefenwerth wanted to be thorough upon entering a new school and opted for it, was “absolute blind luck,” says Ken Sweeten, the school’s assistant athletic director.

“I’ve gotten physicals every year, since I can remember, just to play hockey,” Tiefenwerth said. “UMass required one as well and it just didn’t happen that way. I guess you could look at it and say that transferring saved my life. It could have been a lot worse and I could’ve suffered a stroke or a heart attack or something along those lines if I hadn’t transferred here. A lot of things had to fall in line for it to happen. It’s somewhat of a blessing in disguise.”

* * *

Now at full strength, Tiefenwerth is fulfilling the promise he showed that had programs like Boston College, UMass and Quinnipiac interested in him in the first place.

He’s played in all 39 games for the 29-3-7 Bobcats, with seven goals (sixth-best on the team) and 20 points. He scored a goal at Madison Square Garden, a dream come true even for an Islanders fan who grew up 10 minutes from the Coliseum. “Uncle K” is a hero to his brother’s 18-month-old son, Carter.

“Proud,” C.J. Tiefenwerth says. “It’s supposed to be the other way around. He’s supposed to be looking up to me but I’m looking up to him.”

“He’s still the brother that I knew before the surgery; kind, loving and wants to make everybody happy. If it did change him, it changed him for the better.”

On the ice, Pecknold sees more than points and plus-minus ratings in Tiefenwerth.

His team plays a demanding, shot-blocking style of play. Pecknold calls it “a 200-foot game,” which requires every player to be a two-way player, and Tiefenwerth, who Pecknold says was always a gifted offensive player but has worked to become an all-around one, has come to embody that style.

“I remember that early this season he had a couple of huge shot blocks in some pivotal games,” Pecknold says. “You don’t get written up in the papers for that. That’s something that your coaches and teammates see, that, hey, you’re willing to make a sacrifice to help us win. We talk about eating pucks. It’s coming at you 80, 90, 95 mph. It’s a big part of the game if you want to win. We do it all year long and it’s part of our DNA. It hurts to block shots! You gotta have an edge to ya to do it.”

Or heart.

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