Barber: Raiders' T.J. Carrie opens his heart
Raiders cornerback T.J. Carrie has a chest that doesn’t look like the chests of most men, and not just because of the dramatic scar that vertically bisects it.
“I actually have a bump,” Carrie said Wednesday, speaking to a handful of reporters at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford. “My chest doesn’t go all the way in my sternum, because when they had the surgery, they had to saw open my sternum. … My sternum sticks out.”
Carrie used to be self-conscious about his scar. He was a sophomore in high school when Dr. Frank Hanley opened his chest cavity and repositioned his coronary artery. He remembers his initial self-consciousness, how he didn’t want to take off his shirt in public because he looked different than other boys.
Most of us tend to see scars as defects, as ugly blemishes. They are reminders that something went wrong and had to be repaired, by a doctor or by the regenerative powers of our bodies. But Carrie sees his differently now. He embraces what the scar stands for: resilience. Mental toughness. Survival.
“This is something that motivates me every day, to go out there and share my experience, and to be a testimony to any other kids who are battling these types of conditions,” Carrie said.
The man who created that scar was in full agreement.
“We can never make the scar go away completely,” Hanley said. “And I say own the scar. It’s your battle scar.”
Hanley operated on Carrie on Valentine’s Day, 2006. This was their first meeting since the doctor left the teenager’s room at Oakland Children’s Hospital, 12 years earlier. T.J. Carrie was spending another Valentine’s Day with the person who mended his heart. Not bad.
“A lot of emotions came back up,” Carrie said after their interaction.
There was a lot of scar-gazing going on Wednesday at Children’s Hospital Stanford. Carrie visited several children who had recently undergone heart procedures, and he happily pulled up his shirt for several of them. He handed out teddy bears customized with sutured sternums. “The bear has a scar just like us,” Carrie told 8-year-old Soraya Duckworth, who was born with half of a functioning heart and is already a veteran of multiple surgeries.
I said Carrie is a Raider, but that status could change in a few weeks. Unless the team re-signs him or tags him, he will hit free agency in March. He drove to Alameda on Tuesday to visit with Jon Gruden and hopes to remain with the Raiders. “I couldn’t see myself anywhere else,” Carrie said. But the decision will not necessarily be his to make.
That’s a lot of uncertainty to throw at a young man who became a father on Super Bowl Sunday. But we can comfortably surmise he’s been through worse.
Carrie was a freshman at Deer Valley High School in Antioch when he began getting winded during preseason football practices. It made no sense. He’d always been one of the more athletic boys in his class. Then one day he passed out on the field. His family doctor insisted he see a specialist. It took a year to diagnose his condition.
As it turned out, Carrie was born with his coronary artery tucked between his lungs. That’s not where it was supposed to be. When the boy worked out vigorously, his lungs would expand and squeeze the artery, decreasing the flow of blood to the heart, which decreased the flow of blood out of the heart, which robbed the brain of oxygen.
Carrie didn’t have to undergo surgery. His family could have taken a more passive approach. “Any open-heart operation is by definition risky,” Hanley said.
But leaving the artery alone bore its own dangers. Carrie would be fine as long as he never elevated his heart rate. This didn’t seem realistic for a kid raised in a football family, with athletic aspirations of his own.
“If your passion is to be active and to compete and to do things at the level that T.J. wants to do it, then it would have been extraordinarily risky for him to do that without the surgery,” Hanley said.
So Carrie went under the knife as a sophomore. By that time he had transferred to De La Salle, Northern California’s foremost football power. Hanley said he has now done more than 100 procedures like the one he performed on Carrie. Back then, it wasn’t as easy to diagnose. When Carrie was wheeled into his operating room, Hanley had done only a dozen or so of them.
In anticipation of meeting Carrie on Wednesday, Hanley looked at the original “operative note” he prepared after the 2006 surgery. “We did a somewhat innovative type of repair of his coronary artery,” the doctor said. “And that has evolved, and that is what we’re now doing routinely.”