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Barber: Raiders' T.J. Carrie opens his heart

PALO ALTO

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.”

After the procedure, Carrie wasn’t cleared to play football until his senior year. Keep in mind that he hadn’t logged a game as a freshman, either. So Carrie played just one season of high school football. It’s no surprise, then, that he received scant attention from major college programs, and wound up at Ohio University.

It wasn’t exactly easy skating from there. Carrie got hurt as a college freshman, and later underwent shoulder surgery that caused him to miss most of a full season with the Bobcats. The Raiders drafted him in the seventh round in 2014; 218 players were selected before him.

But hey, guess what, he has been pretty good in the NFL. Not unbeatable. Carrie has always made mistakes. But he makes big plays, too - at least as many as higher-paid Oakland corners like Sean Smith and David Amerson the past couple of years. Considering that Smith is embroiled in a court case and Amerson has been released, the Raiders would do well to keep Carrie around.

He’s an impressive guy, I’ll say that. The kids he met at the hospital (and their parents) have been traumatized, but Carrie disarmed them with his easygoing tenderness. And he didn’t just participate in the event, which took place in front of clicking cameras. He took over, intercepting Hanley for a hug and more or less interviewing the doctor so we could all receive the salient points.

Also part of the gathering was Taylor Gamino, 24, who, like Soraya, was born with half a heart. His surgeries began early in life. In 2002, when he was 8, his mother, Kimberlie Gamino, founded Camp Taylor. Carrie has been a regular visitor to the camp for a few years now. It’s a place for young heart-defect survivors to come together and laugh and play.

And compare scars. As Carrie put it: “Now it’s like, ‘Look at how pretty it is.’ Yours has a zig-zag in it. Yours is a little wider than mine. Yours is a little longer.”

An interesting thing happened late Wednesday morning. We were all in Sophie’s Place, a multimedia room at the hospital. It has a big case of children’s books along one wall and a massive screen on another that was showing an animated undersea world on loop, complete with bubbling audio.

Soraya was sitting in a chair about 15 feet away from Carrie, who was addressing another family. She had a plastic tube in her nose and a portable heart monitor in the chair next to her; it beeped every few seconds, a metronomic reminder of her undefeatable vitality. Carrie was talking about his scar again, and Soraya must have heard him. She quietly and spontaneously unbuttoned her pink My Little Pony pajama shirt, a complement to her pink pajama pants and furry pink slippers. I think her scars were itchy. I also think she just wanted people to see them.

“She’s seen kids on TV, crying, upset because they have scars,” said her mother, Marlanea Duckworth. “And she was like, ‘Mom, why are they crying? They shouldn’t be upset. Take a picture of my scar, because I want them to know it’s OK. Because they’re alive.’ ”

Soraya Duckworth wants to be a doctor when she grows up. T.J. Carrie wants to be a Raider in 2018. I wish them both success.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

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