Meet the 2018 Cleveland Clinic Sports Health Courage Award recipient: Sophia Pecjak
Sophia Pecjak, a 15-year-old freshman soccer and basketball player attending Lake Catholic High School in Mentor, Ohio, who overcame major medical obstacles to return to her true passion, participating in competitive sports.
Pecjak was a premier-level soccer player. One Sunday morning in September 2014, she noticed a funny feeling in her chest and visited her Cleveland Clinic pediatrician the next day.
During her appointment, Pecjak's blood work came back normal, however the doctor detected an abnormal echocardiogram (EKG) which spurred a follow-up call the next day from an electrophysiologist notifying her family to schedule an appointment immediately with a cardiologist.
While she was scheduled to meet with a cardiologist a few days later, Pecjak was feeling lethargic and unable to eat or drink. Within 24 hours, her symptoms had worsened and she was unable to see properly. Her family decided to take her to the emergency room where another EKG was done. Results from the second test showed that she was in heart failure most likely due to myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle usually caused by a viral infection.
She was admitted to the hospital and scheduled for a cardiac biopsy the following day, but shortly after being brought to the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, she went into cardiac arrest. Medical professionals were able to revive and stabilize her long enough to get her on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO), a treatment that uses a pump to circulate blood through an artificial lung and back to the bloodstream.
Pecjak stayed on the ECMO for five days, and then weaned off treatment and placed on a heart transplant list. Conversely, a chest X-ray and an EKG were taken. Results from both tests revealed her heart had nearly gone back to its normal size and she could be taken off the transplant list. However, Pecjak still had a long road to recovery.
After her 21-day stay in the hospital, she was able to return to school part-time. Her physical activity was restricted, but her goal of returning to the soccer field and basketball courts was something she would do with courage and hard work. During the next year, Pecjak continued to receive outpatient cardiac treatment at Cleveland Clinic allowing her to return to competitive sports with no restrictions on activities.
"Playing sports has always been a big part of my life," said Pecjak. "I feel very blessed to not only be given a second chance at life, but also have the physical ability to continue participating in something that means so much to me."
Pecjak is still followed by the Cleveland Clinic Children's Pediatric Heart Failure and Transplant team. After her experience, she expressed a strong desire to give back. She hopes to one day join the medical profession in some capacity stating she desires to, "help kids like me."
"Sophia embodies the essence of courage, facing a life-threatening illness with grace, faith, strength and of course, courage," said Colleen Nasman, RN, BS, Pediatric Heart Transplant Coordinator at Cleveland Clinic. "Never a complaint, never a why me, just determination and enduring optimism."
Pecjak was supported through this difficult road to recovery by her parents, Carole and Michael, and siblings, Catie and John.
Pecjak and her family were present at 19th Greater Cleveland Sports Awards on February 6, 2019 to accept the Courage Award.
Cleveland Clinic Sports Health Courage Award is awarded to an athlete who displays courage beyond the boundaries of their playing field, in order to inspire those around them.
Previous Courage Award Winners:
2017: Samer Babi, North Olmsted, Football - SamerStrong Memorial Foundation
2016: Kendra Seitz, Competitive Swimming
2015: Colin Teets, Westlake, Hockey
2014: Nick Lenyo, Huron, Football
2013: Courteney Belmonte, Westlake, Competitive Cheerleading
2012: Molly Miller, Notre Dame Academy, Soccer
2011: Brandee Kelly, Cleveland State University, Basketball
2010: Olivia Warhop, Hathaway Brown School, Swimming & Soccer
2009: Gyasi Cooper, St. Ignatius High School, Track & Field
2008: Eric Anderson, Jr., Gilmour Academy, Basketball
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