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'I'm just so scared': A Navy football coach works and waits for son's heart transplant

Jarren Jasper, the teenage son of Navy's offensive co-ordinator Ivin Jasper, was diagnosed with supraventricular tachycardia when he failed a mandatory physical. He is currently awaiting a heart transplant.

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By AVA WALLACE | The Washington Post | Published: October 6, 2017

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Two months after the worst day of his life, there are three words Ivin Jasper can't get out of his head.

He says them again and again while sitting in his spacious office at the Naval Academy on Tuesday afternoon. Over his right shoulder, large windows show a picturesque view of sailboats bobbing along the Severn River. Life-size cutouts of his three children - Dallas, Jaylen and Jarren - performing various athletic feats adorn the walls. Notes for Saturday's football game against visiting Air Force are stacked precisely on the offensive co-ordinator's desk.

But in Jasper's mind, it's Aug. 4, and he's sitting in a room at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, looking down as 14-year-old Jarren lays on a hospital bed, his gangly body hooked up to a tangle of wires connecting him to various beeping machines.

Jarren was heavily sedated the first few times his father saw him awake after surgery. He had barely enough strength to reach up to his father, turn his head and whisper the words that would stay with Jasper:

"Dad, what happened?"

Ivin and Donna Jasper's youngest child had come in for surgery that was supposed to fix his abnormally fast heart rate. Complications were very rare, the parents were told, but Jarren's heart swelled so much during the procedure that his coronary artery closed off, sending him into cardiac arrest. He needed to be revived on the operating table.

Less than two weeks later, the teenager would have a left ventricular assist device implanted, a mechanical pump that helps the heart deliver blood throughout the body. The LVAD is a stopgap that allows the once-vivacious boy to live at home, instead of in a hospital, while his name sits on a transplant list. He is waiting to receive a new heart.

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Jarren's rapid heart rhythm, called supraventricular tachycardia, was diagnosed when the incoming freshman failed a mandatory physical in late June ahead of football tryouts at Broadneck High School in Annapolis.

Ivin Jasper was familiar with the condition. He had an abnormally fast heartbeat diagnosed before his senior season playing football at Hawaii, but he was cleared to play without undergoing a medical procedure. This summer, a cardiologist suggested Jarren, too, might be cleared to play, and that his condition could be managed with medication, but he advised the family to see an electrophysiologist first.

"Well," Jasper said, "the electrophysiologist took his pulse and immediately said: 'Wow. This needs to be fixed.' "

Surgery seemed the best option. Jarren went in for a treatment called catheter ablation, a procedure in which doctors selectively destroy the parts of the muscle causing the irregular heartbeat. Jarren's heart swelled at the very end of surgery.

For the parents, that has been one of the worst parts of this ordeal: the gnawing idea that the decision to operate played a part in their son's health problems.

"When this all happened, I was just dumbfounded," Donna said. "It was, 'Why did we do this? Why are we here?' My son is that rare side effect, that one-in-a-million chance of something happening. It happened to my son. So, yeah, I blamed a lot. I was mad at myself. I was mad at the world."

On Thursday, Jarren went home from the hospital for the first time since Aug. 4. The battery-powered LVAD restricts what he can do, but it is capable of keeping patients alive for years without a fully functioning heart. For now, Jarren is weak, mostly from his surgery and from spending two months in a hospital bed.

Jarren, who stands about 5 feet 10, weighed 124 pounds before his initial surgery but has since lost 25 pounds. He can't stand for long periods of time and will need physical therapy to help strengthen the leg through which doctors inserted a catheter during surgery. Because of the LVAD, Jarren has to plug himself into the wall now that he's at home.

It seems particularly cruel for a family of athletes. Ivin Jasper, 47, has spent nearly 10 years as Navy's offensive coordinator, building a career around molding strong, capable young men to run Navy's offense. Daughter Dallas, 22, plays volleyball at Saint Leo University in Florida. Jaylen, 18, is a freshman volleyball player at Stanford who played with Team USA's boys' youth national team this summer.

And then there's Jarren, "my kid that you didn't have to ask to practice," Donna said.

The family's goal now is to get Jarren's body strong enough to withstand a heart transplant. Eventually, they hope to get their son as close to the active, sports-loving boy he was before.

"That's been the hardest thing for me," Jasper said. "When I drive to the hospital, I drive past the basketball court and see kids playing, and he loves basketball. And I look out, and I'm just so scared that he'll never be able to do that again."

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Football hasn't quite been the refuge Jasper thought it would be.

When he told Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo - not only his boss, but his friend since their college days at Hawaii, where both men met their wives - of Jarren's condition Aug. 4, Niumatalolo told Jasper to take as much time off as he needed.

Jasper took almost three weeks. When he came back to work, he drove from Annapolis to Washington almost every evening after practice to spend time with his son in the hospital. Donna didn't leave Jarren's bedside for weeks. Jasper guesses she has spent four nights sleeping in her own bed in the past two months.

Practice offers a brief respite for Jasper, though it's an effort to remain focused at work. Jasper has helped the Midshipmen to their third 4-0 start in 38 years ahead of the rivalry game against Air Force (1-3), and junior quarterback Zach Abey is flourishing, with the fifth-most rushing yards (656) in the country.

"I don't know how he's doing it," Niumatalolo said of Jasper. "He's put in a full workload. It's hard to be a Division I football coach, and I don't know how - well, I do know how. It's the love of your son. He's obviously been an inspiration, but more so, his son has. He, Jarren and his parents, Ivin and Donna, have been great inspiration for all of us."

Support has poured in from programs around the country, including Old Dominion and Wake Forest. Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney, whose staff includes the son of former Navy defensive coordinator Buddy Green, recorded a video for Jarren, as did the Navy football team.

The Midshipmen are also wearing rubber bracelets that read "JarrenStrong."

It all means the world to Jasper, who has spent the past 18 years on staff at Navy, and Jarren, who has grown up with the program.

Jasper feels selfish when he finds himself yearning for a donor heart for his son, so he prefers to say his family is hoping for a miracle. Meanwhile, he continues to not just be a father to his youngest son, but a coach.

"People give me a lot of credit for my coaching job, Will Worth [last season's starting quarterback], all that, but I said to him, 'My best coaching job is gonna be with you,' " Jasper said. " 'I'm gonna get you back close to what you used to be again, man. You're gonna be out there running around, shooting hoops. We're gonna ride this thing out.' "

Navy co-offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper poses in this family photo with his wife Donna Jasper and their three children. Their youngest son Jarren (right) was diagnosed with supraventricular tachycardia when he failed a mandatory physical. He is currently awaiting a heart transplant.
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