Heart Breaker

Lorie Johnson

Name: Brittany Ross
Class: Junior
Height: 6'2''
Hometown: Sunrise, Fla.
Position: OH
Honors: 2nd Team All-ACC (2005), led Tigers with 525 kills as a sophomore.  All-ACC Freshman team (2004)
Clemson volleyball star Brittany Ross sat on the home bench in street clothes watching her team play in pre-season matches. The bench felt mighty uncomfortable.

 Ross was an All-ACC starter as a freshman and the team’s top outside hitter last season as a sophomore, leading the team with 535 kills. Going into the 2006 season, everyone was expecting Ross to have her best year yet.

“She’s very smart, very strong and very energetic,” Clemson head coach Jolene Hoover said. “She motivates the other girls. We were all excited about what she would do this season.”

Instead, there Ross sat just watching and cheering for her teammates. Fans made their way down to the bench to ask her why she wasn’t playing.

The truth was hard to explain.

It all began last May when Ross finished her spring semester, watched a few friends graduate, then headed home to Sunrise, Fla., a suburb of Ft. Lauderdale, to visit her parents. On her way, she stopped in Selma, Ala., to visit her grandparents. After a week there, she was waiting in line at the Birmingham airport to board her flight home when she suddenly collapsed.

“I was talking to a lady in line when I started to feel very strange,” Ross said. “I got a serious hot flash. I dripped sweat. Everything was hazy, and I couldn’t see much. I was light-headed. I kept thinking it would go away, but the next thing I knew I woke up on the floor.”

Paramedics arrived but found nothing wrong. Ross ended up making the flight home and was fine for almost a month even though the strange feeling never left. But when she returned to Selma on her way back to Clemson, it happened again.

This time Ross had tests run at a local hospital, but they all came back normal. Finally, an electrocardiogram revealed a problem with her heart. Still assuming the best, Ross returned to Clemson and told team doctors she needed to see a cardiologist. “I was the epitome of health,” she said. “I had never been hurt in my whole career – from middle school through college. No sprains, no twisted ankles – nothing. I had never had an injury.”

It was hard for her to imagine this could be serious, but it was.

“It’s a condition where the top and bottom parts of my heart are not beating in sync,” she said. “They are supposed to take turns, but the top part of my heart just stopped sending signals to the bottom, so they would end up beating at the same time. When they did, I would pass out.”

While most people have heart trouble when they are exerting themselves, Ross’ heart experienced arrhythmia when she was at rest.

“If I ran or jogged, I was fine. But when I stopped, I passed out,” she said.

Ross’ mom, Jamelle, said the condition is so unusual it doesn’t even have a name. Doctors scratched their heads and tried drug after drug unsuccessfully.

“It was very challenging,” Mrs. Ross said. “Anything dealing with the heart can be fatal. There were many variables out of our control. We couldn’t control her environment and make it go away. It was humbling to realize it was out of our hands. We just had to trust God. But we knew that if God allowed it, He’d prepared a way.”

Ross’ doctors finally recommended a pacemaker to control her heartbeat, but sent her to renowned Emory cardiologist and electrophysicist Dr. Angel Leon for another opinion. Ross said Leon didn’t want to see a pacemaker put in a 20-year-old.

 “I know God has a plan and that no matter what we imagine for ourselves, God imagines more,” she said. “Whatever plan God has for me, there’s no other route I would rather take.”
“He thought my case was extremely interesting,” she said. “He tried one more drug on me for two weeks, but my body rejected it like it did all the others. He finally told me not to let anyone talk me into a pacemaker. It wasn’t worth it. But he did say I could never play my sport again.”

Ross listened to Leon’s report and wept.

“Part of me was relieved, though,” she said. “After being in the dark for so long and being so confused, it was a relief to know what was wrong and what was going to happen. For so long it was like walking in the dark with a blindfold on.”

With Leon’s pronouncement, light had come. Yet, it was hard to walk in.

As far as she knows, for the rest of her life Ross will have to be careful when she exerts herself. “She can exercise,” Mrs. Ross said, “but she has to be prepared to pass out as soon as she gets off the treadmill.”

Volleyball is over. For the strong, athletic 6-foot-2 Ross, that is hard to swallow. She grew up playing sports in a strong, athletic family. Her father had played basketball for Alabama State, and her mom had been a stand-out high school athlete. Her four brothers and sisters all played sports. The multi-talented Ross could do it all. She acted in plays, belted out songs in school performances and played on several sports teams.

Volleyball was actually the one sport at which she wasn’t any good. She started playing when her mom sent her to a volleyball camp the summer before her seventh grade year. For the first time in her life, a sport did not come easily for her. She was so bad she couldn’t get the ball over the net, and none of the girls at the camp would eat lunch with her. They didn’t want her on their team. “When I picked her up that first day she was sitting away from the group sulking,” her mom said. “She would sit every day on the bench eating her sandwich alone and crying because no one would sit with her.” But Ross stuck it out and eventually – improbably – became one of Florida’s top volleyball players.

“That’s why I chose to pursue volleyball over basketball,” Ross said. “Volleyball was more of a challenge. I had to work at it.” She had scholarship offers from all over the nation when she signed with Clemson in 2004. She had one of the best freshman seasons in Clemson history and was an all-conference star.

From the beginning, Ross was active in Clemson’s huge FCA ministry, especially a Bible study for female athletes, which she regularly attends. Her ministry in college has been to athletes, who frequently fill her apartment. Hoover says Ross “lights up a room” and that she is such a people person others are naturally drawn to her.
Clemson FCA area representative Brad Cooper says Ross has used her love for people and her engaging personality to draw others to Christ.

“One of the first things I noticed about Brittany was her joy,” he said. “She has such an influence on people. Even now, God is using her testimony. Every athlete can relate in some way to a career-ending injury, and she is using this as a platform to point people to Christ.”

With help from a friend, Ross also formed a ministry called The Standard, which is designed to reach out to college students. It recently hosted an evangelism outreach event attended by 600 Clemson students. Jeff Davis, Ross’ pastor and Clemson associate athletic director, said the way Ross has handled her heart problem has been a testimony to many.

“I was blown away by the maturity with which she responded to it,” he said. “She wasn’t devastated. She realized pretty fast that God was using this to move her forward into new areas of ministry. I know that if she stays humble and obedient to God, she will continue to influence not only those around her, but also the masses.”

For now, Ross is finishing her degree and cheering on her teammates. She’ll move from the bench to the bleachers, but she knows God has a plan and a purpose for her there. And while her heart might not beat exactly as it should, it is beating for the One who made it – and that’s all that matters.

Photos courtesy of Clemson Univ.