Explaining the life he has led the last two years can be difficult for Aquinas High School soccer player and senior Patrick Brannon.
It isn’t easy to explain to others the hours of inactivity spent in his room, the need for a limited school schedule or why the short bike rides he did take when building enough energy for them wiped him out for days.
“I didn’t even know what was going on,” Brannon said. “All I knew was that I was always tired, dizzy and had headaches.”
What was initially identified as a sinus problem was later diagnosed as POTS (Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome), and Brannon has used medication and exercise over the last 18 months to turn himself back into a competitive soccer player for the Blugolds.
“It’s an invisible disease,” said Brannon, who started feeling POTS symptoms the winter of his sophomore year. “No one can see it from the outside. They can’t see how I feel each day.”
POTS is a malfunction of one’s autonomic nervous system, which controls things like heart and breathing rates and blood pressure. The wheels in Brannon’s diagnosis were put in motion during a blood-pressure test on a visit to his doctor.
“They read my blood pressure and heart rate on a machine, and my heart rate was 180 or 190,” Brannon said. “That’s what my heart rate should be if I am in a full-on sprint, and it was just a doctor’s visit.”
Brannon’s heart rate — an average resting heart rate for someone his age is between 60 and 100 — escalated just by standing up. Any physical activity led to long-term exhaustion.
The feeling of doing anything but resting, he said, was that of just completing a marathon or a sprint. That kick-started the medical process of finding out the source of Brannon’s issue, and he was diagnosed with POTS in March of 2015.
“First, we had to figure out what the cat was,” said Debbie Brannon, Patrick’s mom. “Once we had the cat, we had to figure out how to get the cat by the tail.”
What they learned was that POTS impacts one in every 100 teens before they reach adulthood and could be controlled through medication and exercise. The medication would help Patrick’s ability to exercise.
“The exercise is as important as the medication,” Debbie said. “The doctors told him if he exercised, he could get through this. But he was so exhausted that it was hard to get through what he wanted to do.”
There were days, she said, that Patrick used every bit of energy he had to take a shower and get ready for school. There were bouts with shortness of breath, and the whole family felt helpless until the diagnosis.
But both the medication and exercise were welcomed additions — because they provided a light at the end of the tunnel — to Patrick’s life, which used to be that of a three-sport athlete. Basketball was once a passion, but he could do without it. He’d played golf, too, but getting back on the course wasn’t a priority. Soccer, however, was.
“I’d stopped playing for a couple years for whatever reason, and I really missed it,” Patrick said. “That pushed me. I wanted to play soccer again.”
It wasn’t always — or even very often — easy. The recovery process is slow and is far from guaranteed. Some patients get better over time, and some fight the symptoms indefinitely.
There were days that Patrick could handle workouts and days he couldn’t. There were weeks he could hardly get out of his bedroom due to exhaustion.
That made implementing Patrick back into the Aquinas soccer program a bit of a challenge, if only because coaches didn’t know if he’d be able to play regularly.
He worked closely with James Lockley, who has coached the Aquinas girls soccer team to a 42-3-3 record, two WIAA Division 4 championship games and one state title in the last two seasons.
“He enjoyed the sport so much that I wanted to help him out as much as possible,” Lockley said. “We worked on all elements of his game, not that he needed a lot of work on everything, but that’s what we did.
“I tried to push him as much as I could within reason.”
The consistency of those workouts — one hour either once or twice a week, even in the winter months — helped Patrick elevate his status on the team this fall. His junior season was rough, but that has changed.
Instead of helping his team by playing 10 minutes a game, Patrick is on the field for 70 minutes per game. More importantly, he was named a captain.
“This is my first year as the head coach here, but I’ve known him for a long time and coached him when he was younger,” Aquinas coach Mark Carrk said. “I’m able to read him when he’s on the field and understand when he’s doing fine and when he needs a break.
“I was here when he could hardly play, and it’s great being able to see him on the field as much as he is. We need him out there. He’s a good player.”