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Mass. student defies heart woes to enjoy baseball

By Chad Garner
Sentinel &Amp; Enterprise / April 22, 2012
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ASHBURNHAM, Mass.—No one can question that Dylan Poulin plays the game of baseball with a lot of heart.

But if they only knew what Poulin's heart actually looked like, they'd even have a greater appreciation for how hard he plays the game.

The 5-foot-11, 175-pound Poulin, a senior star at Oakmont Regional High School, is known as a battler on the diamond, but his real-life battle is much greater than trying to square up and hit a mid-80s fastball.

Poulin, 18, was diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy the day after his 13th birthday and has watched his health deteriorate over the past five years.

"(The condition) started at moderate and it's kind of gradually gotten worse and worse until now where it's severe," said Poulin, who still somehow manages to sport an ear-to-ear smile that can light up a room. "Nothing I can do about it but live day-to-day.

"The numbers have shown it and I went into congestive heart failure about a month and a half, two months ago. I had fluid in my lungs and my heart, and that's when I knew it was starting to get bad."

According to mayoclinic.com, dilated cardiomyopathy is a disease of the heart muscle, affecting the heart's main pumping chamber (the left ventricle). The left ventricle becomes enlarged (dilated) and can't pump blood to the body with as much force as a healthy heart can.

Dilated cardiomyopathy is a common cause of heart failure, the inability of the heart to supply the body's tissue and organs with enough blood. It may also cause irregular heartbeats (arrhythmia), blood clots or sudden death.

With the way Poulin's heart has weakened, the doctors at Children's Hospital in Boston are already talking about a heart transplant.

"I'm going to meet in four months with the heart transplant doctors," Poulin said after Wednesday's 4-1 victory over Fitchburg High. "I won't be on the list yet, but they think it's coming sooner than they may have wanted."

Poulin has been a pillar of strength, battling this condition for years, but the future is what frightens him.

The heart transplant obviously scares him the most.

"Especially because I don't think anything will happen on the field -- even though the nickname is `sudden death syndrome' -- I don't think anything will happen," he said. "There's basketball players that have died with the same thing I have. The Celtics player (Reggie Lewis) who dropped had the same thing I have. There's a bunch of people that have it.

"The scarier thing is that there's so many people that don't even know they have it, and they could just drop at any time. People that feel anything, I think they should start saying something. Everyone knows their body better than anyone else. Even if you find out there's nothing, it's better to be safe than sorry. It's awful to see a kid drop, it's never good."

Poulin is confident he won't "drop" on the field, and is extremely thankful that his doctors gave him the OK to play baseball for the Spartans for his senior season. He says he feels both lucky and blessed to be able to put the uniform on again.

"Every second, every pitch I enjoy every single second," he said. "Even when you pop up, but I enjoy every single second. I'm just glad to be with this team. I like everyone, so it's great to be here.

"The last few years I've been more focused on getting better, trying to get to the next level, but this year it's about having fun, still getting better and trying to win 100 percent. But this year you really realize that you've got to have fun. I've been realizing that."

Poulin, with his skill set, would no doubt be a future college baseball player. But due to his condition, doctors have told him that this year is his last hurrah on the diamond.

There won't even be a summer season with the Leominster American Legion Post 151 baseball team like last year. No playing in college. No more baseball. This is it.

"They told me I could play (this season), and I wasn't going to really push the questions," Poulin said. "As of right now, summer definitely no-go. It's too hot and it makes my heart worse. College, no-go, it's too much training, weight lifting and all that stuff. I haven't been able to weight lift since 13 and haven't been able to do anything since I was 13. There's nothing really I can do."

But he has this spring season with the Spartans, and that's all that matters to this diehard baseball fan and one of the most complete players in Central Massachusetts.

When Poulin found out doctors would allow him to play this season, he couldn't help but fire off text message after text message to let everyone know he'd be back wearing his trademark No. 3 Oakmont jersey.

"It meant a lot at the time," he said. "They said I could play and then it was no joke 30 seconds later where they said I was going to meet a heart transplant doctor. So that happiness lasted for about 30 seconds and then it just kind of sank back down. But I'll take that 30 seconds."

So will Poulin's teammates and head coach Steve Darling.

"It's crazy, it's just a struggle that he has to go through," said Oakmont senior pitcher Tim Baker, who has known Poulin since grade school. "We've been best friends. The pitcher-catcher combination, me and him. He's a great kid. I wish this didn't happen, it's terrible. I know the kid he is. He'll pull through it. I know it might be hard for him, but I know he'll have no problem with it."

Darling couldn't help but celebrate inside after fielding one of Poulin's exciting texts.

"I got a text message from Dylan that said, `Coach, I can play,'" Darling said. "I said, `How can this be?' I had given up and made plans without him. And then finding out he could play, the first thing you think about is feeling good for Dylan himself that he can play. Hearing he could play was a huge lift.

"He's one of those special kids. He has it all. Dylan is a fighter all the way; he's going to fight this, too."

Poulin, who goes to two different doctors -- at UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester and Children's Hospital -- is a mentally tough and competitive athlete. He admits his athletic background helped him during heart testing in Boston to decide whether doctors would deem him healthy enough to play baseball again.

"Worcester actually told me no more baseball, stop playing," he said. "I don't do my stress test there, I do that in Boston. I got the same numbers for how much blood my heart is pumping -- they were bad -- they measure it by an ejection fraction. The normal is 75 percent and I got about 20 this time. It started at 40, 41, 42 and it's been going down and down.

"I went to Boston and did my stress test and I actually can do a normal workload for a normal kid, so that's why they said I could play baseball this year."

He knew that if he didn't pass the test, his baseball career was likely over.

"I got worse numbers than last time by 30 seconds, but I ask them every single time what I got last time for the numbers just so I can try to beat it," Poulin said. "Every single time they know what I'm going to ask, so they just give me the numbers pretty quick."

When Poulin got the initial word in early February that he couldn't play, Darling said his star player was down in the dumps.

The ballclub was also reeling.

"That was a huge loss to the team," Darling said. "Dylan Poulin is one of the best players in Central Massachusetts, no doubt about it. Losing him was a huge loss to the team. It set us way back."

Poulin's skills might be just as good as before, but his workload has lessened in his senior campaign. One of the side effects to dilated cardiomyopathy and the medications Poulin takes is that he gets extremely exhausted at times.

"They know when they run the lap, I can't do that," Poulin said.

So to try to keep Poulin -- an extremely talented catcher and pitcher -- as fresh as possible, Oakmont is now playing him at less physically demanding positions like first and second base. If he does pitch at all, it's only going to be an inning -- perhaps to close a game -- because he admits to getting run down pretty quickly.

"We're 100 percent prepared," Darling said. "We're doing everything we can to protect Dylan. He's the best thing I've seen all-around. He's a coach's dream. He's from the old school. He doesn't give up and he won't give up with this, I'm sure."

You won't hear Poulin complain about not playing the key positions at which he's excelled at for the past three seasons, however.

"There's good days and there's bad days," he admits. "After games, the next day I'm really just tired, don't want to do much. But the mornings are the worst, actually, like a normal kid."

Darling, who has known Poulin for four years, says he saw Poulin physically gassed during practice on Tuesday. It's the first time he can ever remember seeing Poulin sluggish at all.

"He was very quiet," Darling said. "You wonder if something is bothering him. Dylan is never tired. It makes you think; it's on your mind all the time."

Still, Poulin gets out of bed, goes to school and is ready to practice or play in a game every day, no questions asked. It's the love of the game and a drive that is second to none that keeps him pushing forward.

How does he deal with all this adversity?

"Smile, try my best. I don't like being left behind," said Poulin, who plans on staying involved in the game by coaching or giving private lessons to kids after his playing career is finished. "I like trying to keep up with every single person. I can't keep up with most kids, but I try. Going to the courts and trying to play basketball with all my friends. It might not be something the doctors love, but I don't like being left behind and I like being treated normal and be able to do anything that anyone else can do. That's kind of my goal."

Poulin doesn't want anyone feeling sorry for him.

"Things happen to every single person, it's just how you handle it, how everyone around you handles it," he said. "I don't want anyone to feel sorry at all. It's just how I am."

Poulin gets a lot of his strength from his 8-year-old brother, Mitchell Swanson, who was diagnosed with cancer.

"He's in remission now," said Poulin, sporting another wide smile like only a proud big brother could. "It's about two and a half years."

Poulin's condition is extremely serious and it's only going to get worse.

"Yes," said Poulin, when asked if he's afraid to die. "Not right now, but definitely. I always catch myself looking online to look up stuff, and the other day I saw the average age -- even when the numbers are good -- the average age is 50 years old with what I have. I saw that and I was like, `50?' It could be less, it could be more. But it's scary. I'm scared every day."

Poulin might be afraid, but he also appreciates life a lot more than others. There's no way he takes living and breathing for granted anymore.

"Enjoy life every single day," he said. "You see it in high school more than anything: Kids get mad, dwell on the littlest things in life, and you've just got to laugh, smile and have fun while you're here because you never know at any single point in time, it could happen. It could be a car accident, a heart condition, it could be anything, so just enjoy every single second you have on this earth."

This is also why Poulin's like a little kid playing baseball. He enjoys everything about the game now -- even making an out. Nothing can ruin Poulin's spirit when he's on the baseball field, although he openly admits his condition is always in the back of his mind.

"I'm not worried about if anything is going to happen, nothing is going to happen," he said. "It's more enjoy it, don't let something get to me that normally would have gotten to me. Just enjoy every single second. Make the next play. I don't want to dwell on one thing, it's over. I just want to remember a good year. That's what I'm trying to do, that's what we're all trying to do. Winning."

The Oakmont baseball team would also like nothing more than to send Poulin out as a champion.

"As we get into the season, it's going to be really tough on me and him," said Darling, who also said what separates Poulin from a lot of other baseball players is his desire and passion to be the best. "We'd love to dedicate the season to Dylan, but he wouldn't go for it. In my heart, it's dedicated to Dylan."

Baker says the team will do anything and everything to make sure Poulin and the Spartans end the season by hoisting a championship trophy.

"We've got to do it for him," Baker said. "It's his last season and why not go out with a bang for him and for our team?"

Poulin already can envision what the perfect ending to his condition and the baseball season will be.

"It would be not having to have a heart transplant. I don't want it at all," Poulin said. "I feel perfectly fine, I don't want to have to worry about it, but I know it's probably going to come at a time. I don't want it at all. The perfect ending for the baseball season is district champs, of course. That's what everyone wants, that's what I want."

If the championship eludes Poulin and Oakmont, you can bet it won't put a damper on his last season as a baseball player.

You see, Poulin's just thankful to be able to end his high school career on his own terms.

"I think more kids need to realize that they're lucky to be here," he said. "There's kids that don't get to play sports. I'm so thankful just to be able to play -- even though it's only one sport -- to be able to play one sport my whole life. Even though it's going to end, everything's got to end at some point, so enjoy it."

Now that's a heart of a champion.

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