TOPSHAM

Up until last year, Evan James Thibeault never really understood the joys and rewards that come with team sports.

With a heart condition that reduced his ability to run and play like the others around him, the Mt. Ararat High School jayvee soccer player was mostly a watch-and-see attendee.

And, guess what?

Because of his fortitude and never-give-up attitude, the sophomore was asked to work with the boys soccer varsity on Tuesday.

This, just two months after having heart surgery!

You see, Evan was born with Tetralogy of Fallot, a congenital heart defect that changes the normal flow of blood through the heart.

MT. ARARAT HIGH SCHOOL soccer player Evan Thibeault (8) is shown in action last Saturday at home versus Brewer.

MT. ARARAT HIGH SCHOOL soccer player Evan Thibeault (8) is shown in action last Saturday at home versus Brewer.

Tetralogy of Fallot is rare, complex. It occurs in about five out of every 10,000 babies and affects boys and girls equally.

Yes, it essentially constricts oxygen to the heart although I’m not completely certain of everything about it. I just know that pretty much before the surgery they said there wasn’t a chance that I could play sports.

 

 

“And, after the surgery they said everything went really well and that there was a chance I could possibly play.”

And, growing up?

“It’s kind of weird because I could do just about anything I wanted to do. And, I never really thought anything of it. I didn’t think that my condition had anything to do with endurance.

“I just assumed that was normal and that I was kind of out of shape most of my life! It then developed into me finding out that this is why this (his heart) is like it is.”

Originally, the plan was for Evan to have a second surgery around is 18th or 20th birthday.

“But, then they decided that now would be a more opportune time. It worked out pretty well because if they did it on my 18th birthday, I’d be senior and I’d miss playing.”

Before, most of his free time would be spent simply kicking a ball around. Nothing too strenuous, mind you.

“I never really had hobbies, per se. I just did whatever I felt like doing on that particular day.”

Evan says he never really got down on himself, or carried around that woe-is-me mentality. His life was, well, his life.

A ‘normal’ life?

“I never knew what it was like to have a ‘normal’ life, so I kind of assumed my heart was normal and not abnormal. It never crossed my mind, necessarily that something was tremendously different.

“But, just playing here now (on the Mt. Ararat main field) I can see a huge difference in not only performance, but the mentality in the game. I have a new lease on life and it sort of puts things into perspective. Like, what if I had this surgery sooner, where I would be?

“But, I’m completely content on where I am now.”

Doctors had originally reserved a four-hour slot for the operation, and it only took less than three.

“When they made an incision they had to crack the breastbone and they essentially replaced the pulmonary valve with a different model.”

Which brings him to the soccer pitch.

So, Evan what’s it like being a bonefide part of a team? A true and blue Eagle?

“It’s hard to explain … there are people who don’t understand team sports and they think they can describe what it’s like to feel wanted and needed.

“And to feel like you can help other people. It’s one of the best feelings in the world, just knowing that any time you’re in trouble on and off the field, your teammates have your back.”

Hey, there’s no quit in this kid. Consider this: Last winter he started running indoor track. Literally, an uphill battle.

“It was rough … more mental limits. I kind of refused to run the 400 (meters) because I knew not only would it be a really slow time and that it would go into the books, but that it would destroy my confidence. And, it didn’t feel very good afterwards … lots of nausea and everything. So, I usually did the shorter sprints.”

And, this fall?

“On the field I’ve noticed a big difference … I feel quicker and I feel I can run for a longer period of time. It’s great!”

He’s also seen a change in his overall demeanor.

“I just feel better about everything I do on and off the field. It just feels different. Like the nearer I got to the surgery it was that placebo effect. I just felt short of breath because I knew I had that condition.

“Now, even with running upstairs, which at times was difficult, is fine, now.”

He thinks about varsity coach Rick Renaud, who underwent his own heart surgery a few years back.

“He said that three months after his surgery he was still sleeping in a recliner. And, I was able to sleep in my bed that week.”

He was told by doctors that it would take at least eight weeks for him to resume normal activities. “And, it couldn’t have seemed any longer.”

At first, he was able to attend the first week of preseason, but was not allowed to compete.

“Just watching and observing everything that I could do when I came back in order to refine and dust off the skills that I had before. Just to make sure I hadn’t lost anything!”

On the field Sept. 27

His first jayvee game was Bangor, back on Sept. 27. He came in as a reserve when coach Tom Fournier called his name.

“It felt pretty good. I honestly didn’t feel nervous at all playing this year. Last year playing jayvees, every time I got called up it was kind of small panic attack. Worried that I’d mess up and that it wouldn’t end well for me. Mostly mental.

“And, when it came to jogging back I’d always get cramps in my side. It was horrible.”

Let’s let Fournier chime in.

Evan is a great student/athlete and a very hard worker,” lauded Fournier. “I think we have a good relationship. His dad and I were schoolmates growing up and it is even more special to be able to coach his son. Evan is pretty amazing to have gone through heart surgery just months ago and to be back playing soccer better than before.

“Last year his stamina was not nearly as good as it has been so far this season. He missed the first five weeks of competitive soccer, but was at every practice even though he couldn’t play, which shows his commitment to his sport and his team. He has been an offensive punch for the jayvee team since he has been back playing soccer. In his first game back, I played him sparingly, but he told me he was ready to go and that he felt better now than all of last season.

“He is a hard worker and a kind and caring teammate. He was a captain on the freshman team last year and serves as a good leader and role model. Evan is a joy to coach and leads by example.”

And, so here we are on the soccer pitch, enjoying life to the fullest.

“It was almost like I had nothing to lose. Eight weeks ago I was on an operating table and now I’m out there playing a soccer game.”

You might say Evan’s on a winning streak and he’s playing with house money.

“My mentality is to play as hard as you can to make up for lost time. Because I really hadn’t had a chance to compete at a high level prior to that Bangor game and it was little rough physically. But, as I moved on I became more accustomed to the high stress of playing in a game. I just acclimated to it.”

And this from head coach Renaud, who has seen a lot of faces come and go over the past 30 years or so:

“I have known Evan since he was a baby. My wife Bethann was the maid of honor at Jim and Caroline’s (Evan’s parents) wedding,” said Renaud. “Evan has always had a lot of spunk and is very competitive, like his father. I knew he had issues with his heart, so it wasn’t a surprise to me that he was having a procedure.

“When I found out I went and talked to him about my surgery and how well I did hoping it would make him a little less apprehensive, and I also told him I wanted him to be a part of the team while he was healing. He was there at practice with us as much as he could and was a great motivator for the team.

“I figured he wouldn’t be able to play this fall because it took me six months before I could do anything! But he was amazing in his recovery. He was at practice helping out within a couple of weeks of his surgery, which was incredible. He started playing within eight weeks of his surgery which I couldn’t believe.

“He is a great young man and is a really hard worker, which is why the captains of the varsity team wanted to reward him by putting him on varsity this week. That I would say is a true testament of his character and his work ethic.”

There have been tons of wellwishers and supporters around the Mt. Ararat community.

“That’s half the reason I was able to come back — because of the support of friends, family, teammates … it’s been great. No real negatives … like an early Christmas.”

GEORGE ALMASI is the Times Record sports editor. He can be reached at [email protected]timesrecord.com

Parents’ journey

A journey for Jim and Caroline Thibeault, as told by Caroline:

“Tetralogy of Fallot always includes these four defects: a misplaced aorta, a septal defect, enlarged right ventricular wall, and a narrowed pulmonary artery.

“At three months of age he had surgery to repair these issues, which he breezed through. We were told that another surgery would be needed when he was 18 or 20 to replace the pulmonary valve, which carries oxygenated blood to the lungs.

“In the meantime, the doctor said football and wrestling may not be a good idea, but other than that he was good to go. He’s had annual appointments with the cardiologist, and at this April visit after the usual round of tests, an MRI was suggested to get a better look at his heart.

“The test concluded that there was more narrowing of the valve than what the doctor would like to see and suggested surgery after school ended.

“We had noticed over the last year that he just didn’t have the stamina that he used to, but never crossed our minds that it was heart related, but of age, yes.

“It was really hard for Jim and I to tell him, since it would mean no soccer this summer or fall, and he really wanted to play, but he took it on the chin.

“Surgery was July 31st, he was home on August 3, and negotiating to play soccer on August 8, his 16th birthday, as leverage to play — which he didn’t!

“But, you would never have known he’d had surgery the week before by watching him running around the back yard kicking the soccer ball. So, after eight weeks of recovery September 24 FINALLY came, and he was able to play in the game.

“It was like watching a different kid out there … it did my heart good. He wasn’t sure about doing this (newspaper) piece because he didn’t want it to seem like bragging, but I mentioned that there are a lot of kids out there who are looking at having surgery.

“He is truly inspiring, for me and everyone else who’s watched his recovery.”


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