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Erik Compton, a 2-time heart transplant recipient, plays on with the gift of life
Question of the Day
Erik Compton can't shake this darn cough. Three weeks have passed, and he's still hacking. Standing on the seventh tee of Congressional Country Club's Blue Course during Monday's Pro-Am at the AT&T National, you could hear the stuff in Compton's lungs gurgle. Later, on the 13th green, he needed to rest. He crossed his legs and sat down in the first cut while others in his group putted out.
This has been the 32-year-old Compton's reality since he was a boy. The battle royale inside him is constant: medicine versus immune system versus heart. And yet, here he is, a two-time heart transplant recipient playing his first season on the PGA Tour.
"It's unbelievable that he made it to the tour," said Charlie DeLucca, Compton's longtime mentor and coach. "It's more unbelievable that he's alive."
"It's pretty gutsy," added Kyle Stanley, one of Compton's friends on the PGA Tour. "Golf is hard for most of us with one heart, and he's on his third and doing great. It's a remarkable story, very cool."
Compton acknowledges how extraordinary it is, a perspective formed from countless trips to the doctor and a daily routine that includes taking almost three dozen pills that, among other things, try to prevent his immune system from attacking his foreign heart.
He marvels at the gifts donated to him by separate victims of fatal auto accidents in 1992 and 2008. In those persons' deaths, he was given life.
On the left sleeve of his golf shirt is stitched the light blue and green logo of DonateLife.net, a non-profit organization intent on increasing the number of organ donors. Compton's mission on tour is to win, of course. He has made 10 cuts in 15 events this season, and he shot a 2-over par 73 in the first round Thursday. But he also uses his sporting spotlight as a platform.
"I just want people to have the same chance I've had to succeed in life," he said.
Compton grew up a typical kid in Miami. He loved baseball. When he was 9, though, he began suffering dizzy spells and shortness of breath. A physical revealed a viral cardiomyopathy, which affects the heart muscle. He needed a new heart.
"All I wanted to do was, like, 'Aw yeah, just put a heart in and I'll go back and play baseball,'" he said. "But then when you go through it, it's tough."
Doctors cautioned against contact sports after Compton was diagnosed, so he replaced baseball with golf.
"He was very competitive," said Peter Compton, Erik's father. "It was unfortunate this thing hit him right in his personality. He did find an outlet through the golf."
Even that was difficult, though, in the first year after the transplant. There were junior tournaments in which he rolled his bag of clubs on a pull cart while other boys had to carry theirs.
Side effects of the immunosuppressant drugs included intense full-body swelling. His father took him to less-crowded golf courses so Erik wouldn't be embarrassed by his appearance.
"He was so blubbery that I had to help him get up on the tee boxes and get squared away so he could start hitting the ball," Peter Compton said.
Compton's golf game rapidly evolved. By 16 he was exceptional, DeLucca recalled. At 19, he was named the American Junior Golf Assocation's player of the year.
He followed his career at the University of Georgia with stints on the Nationwide, Canadian and other minor-league tours. His seven professional wins, most notably the Nationwide Tour's Mexico Open last June, have helped him make a living. But his health constantly is at odds with his talent.
"He's a great, great player of the golf ball," said Kelly Murray, a Reston resident and Compton's close friend from their days on the Canadian Tour. "He can hit any shot you want. But he's never feeling great. All the anti-rejection medication, all the pills he takes, there's issues going on all the time."
The greatest was a heart attack in 2007. Transplanted hearts have a shelf life. They deteriorate as they eventually succumb to rejection by the recipient's body.
Compton's second heart lasted 16 years until May 2008. At age 29, he was unsure of whether he would survive a second transplant, much less continue his golf career.
"There were a lot of times where you think about your mortality," he said. "You lay there and look outside the window and wonder what's going on outside of life. You definitely think about life and think about where we come from and where we're going, things like that."
Not only did Compton continue playing, though, he made a cut at a PGA Tour event five months after his second transplant.
He has continued his fight since then. He earned his 2012 PGA Tour card by finishing 13th on the Nationwide money list last season.
"He's won at every level he's played at," DeLucca said. "He should win on the tour. You can see rounds; it's just playing four days in a row, which I think he can do. He has already proved that, but he's got to be really healthy. The traveling doesn't help him, which is part of the tour. That's what he's got to figure out."
Compton has learned to manage his health as best he can. He obsesses about germs. When Murray caddies for him, he writes an 'E' on the cap of Compton's water bottle to ensure no one but Compton drinks from it.
"His sickness keeps him from getting to the top stages," Murray said, citing limitations on practice time. "I guarantee you if he starts to feel good, he'll be unbelievable."
DeLucca and Murray believe that eventually will become reality. Compton has the time to make it happen, thanks to the gift of life.
"The one thing as I've gotten older, it is amazing to me that I'm still alive and I'm playing as a result of somebody else's organ inside me," Compton said. "My original heart is gone 22 years ago. I just keep on going because someone who is not alive anymore. That's really, really neat."
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