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Published: Tuesday, September 27, 2011, 12:01 a.m.

Burt's mission is close to her heart

Former Washington basketball player spreads the word about heart health

  • Former University of Washington basketball player Kayla Burt (right), who works for the Hope Heart Institute of Seattle, cheers on participants in a f...

    Sarah Weiser / The Herald

    Former University of Washington basketball player Kayla Burt (right), who works for the Hope Heart Institute of Seattle, cheers on participants in a fun run in Kent on Saturday.

BELLEVUE -- Nearly nine years after Kayla Burt's revived heart gave her a second chance at life, the former Arlington High School and University of Washington basketball player is embracing a new career and a new opportunity to share her story.
The 28-year-old Burt, a 2001 Arlington graduate, came within minutes -- perhaps even seconds -- of dying back on New Year's Eve, 2002. After spending a quiet evening at home with UW teammates, Burt collapsed in her bedroom shortly before midnight. Overcoming their panic, her friends administered cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) until paramedics arrived, and Burt was soon on her way to University of Washington Medical Center, where she awoke on New Year's Day after a 15-hour coma.
She had suffered sudden cardiac arrest, and to this day "they don't know why it happened," Burt said. "My diagnosis is idiopathic ventricular fibrillation and my doctor says, 'The idiopathic part means we're idiots and we don't know why.'"
Six days after the incident, a defibrillator was implanted in Burt's chest. She eventually returned to play for the Huskies, but a second episode -- the defibrillator gave her two jarring jolts during a Jan. 12, 2006 home game against UCLA -- meant it was time to give up basketball.
In recent years Burt has tried various careers. She was an assistant coach at the University of Portland for one season, and spent another 18 months as an emergency medical technician in south King County where, remarkably, she helped revive other people experiencing their own sudden cardiac arrests.
But three months ago she began a new job. And this one, dare we say, is close to her heart.
Burt is an outreach coordinator for the Hope Heart Institute of Bellevue. Among other responsibilities, she relates her near-fatal experience to school and community groups as part of a larger message about the need for good heart health and awareness.
Her specific area of emphasis, as you might guess, is sudden cardiac arrest.
"She's got an amazing story," Hope Heart Institute president and CEO Mark Nudelman said. "It's powerful and it's recognizable because of all the people who know about her. The experiences she went through, and then with her comeback and her eventual retirement, it just resonates with people."
"This is my calling now, and my mission is to share my story," said Burt, who lives in West Seattle. "Because if you saw me walking down the street and if you didn't know me, you'd never guess that I'd had a cardiac arrest and that I have a defibrillator in my chest."
Her appearances for the heart institute are varied, but always meaningful. On Saturday she attended a fun run in Kent, where she checked blood pressures and chatted with race participants. This week she will share her tale with UW medical students. In coming weeks she will address school and sports groups.
And wherever she goes, Burt points out the harsh truth that sudden cardiac arrest is often indiscriminate. If it can happen to an elite athlete, she is sure to explain, then "it can happen to anyone."
These days Burt lives what she calls "a completely normal life." She stays physically active with weight lifting, bicycling, a recent half-marathon, and some spirited Tuesday night 3-on-3 basketball games with friends.
"I feel completely fine," she said. "And I'm going to live my life."
She also remains "a huge sports fan" and enjoys attending games of the WNBA's Seattle Storm, although being a spectator is sometimes bittersweet. She has fun seeing players she faced in college, but is also reminded how much she misses the game she loved for so many years.
"There'll be times," she said, "when I'm watching the game and I'm thinking, 'I could be doing what they're doing.' I imagine myself in situations (on the court) all the time." But having to give up competitive basketball "is the reality of my life. It's something that happened to me. And it's something I can't change.
"There've been times when I've been mad about what happened. I mean, I'm human. If you love something enough and if you've worked hard at it, and then it's taken away from you ... of course I was mad. I'd think, 'This isn't fair. Why can't I play?' So, yeah, I've had those moments for sure.
"But I don't feel cheated. Because in a lot of ways, maybe this was the best thing that's ever happened to me. I've been given a platform to make a difference and now that's all I want to do. I want to help other people prevent or possibly save someone from what happened to me."

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