For years, Eric Futrell would tote two bags to his daughter Brenna’s volleyball matches.
Slung over one shoulder, an assortment of camera bodies and lenses to capture the on-court action. The contents of the other bag might come as a shock, even to some of her Mountain View teammates.
Diagnosed with Long QT Syndrome, a heart condition that can cause erratic heartbeats—and, occasionally, sudden cardiac arrest—Brenna Futrell never took the court for a game or practice without an AED in close proximity. Usually, that meant Eric, his wife Sarah, or another family member loitering nearby with the device, which they nicknamed “Brenna’s life.”
No such precautions will be necessary when Futrell and the Wildcats host Stafford tonight in a Region 5D quarterfinal.
With Long QT casting doubts on Brenna’s senior season, the Futrells flew to Minnesota in August to consult with a leading expert, Dr. Michael J. Ackerman of the Mayo Clinic. After three days of rigorous testing, Ackerman removed Futrell’s diagnosis.
The family’s return flight landed on the first day of volleyball tryouts, and Eric Futrell rushed Brenna straight to Mountain View’s gymnasium to deliver the news of her clean bill of health.
“He said, with tears in his eyes, that he could finally not be there for a practice,” first-year Wildcats coach Drew Wine said. “To leave her to be a kid. That was pretty cool.”
‘A battle for faith’
She was only there to support her brother.
Nicholas Futrell suffers from an unrelated heart condition, postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS). During one of his appointments, a doctor asked Brenna if she’d ever been screened for heart issues; sometimes these things run in families.
She replied that she hadn’t, and, before she knew it, she found herself hooked up to an EKG machine.
“It turned out I was the one who had a life-threatening condition,” she said.
The diagnosis didn’t immediately resonate with Brenna.
“She was all smiles at first,” Eric Futrell said. “I don’t think she understood the gravity of what the doctor was saying. But when the doctor started going into the list of things she wouldn’t be able to do anymore, the smile kind of left her face.”
They told her she’d never again play sports. Never ride another roller coaster.
“Everything, it felt like my childhood was just being torn out of me,” she said.
Long QT affects the intervals between heartbeats. If that interval exceeds a certain window (generally considered to be 450-460 milliseconds), then a rush of adrenaline can cause a dangerous (and possibly fatal) dysrhythmia. Doctors prescribed beta blockers, and Futrell took them for the first 17 months following her diagnosis in 2017.
The medication effectively governed Brenna’s heart rate. But there were side effects, both sudden and severe. She lost clumps of hair. Gained 15 pounds.
“It was really rough for me, and nobody knew, because I didn’t go around sharing,” Brenna said. “It was kind of like a battle for faith there for a while. I had to figure out, is this part of my plan or an obstacle I had to live with?”
A waiting game
The waiting list to see Dr. Ackerman was nearly a year long, and the Futrells weren’t hopeful that Brenna would be able to get in prior to her senior volleyball season.
It was summer, and she hadn’t been taking her beta blockers for months. The potential risks didn’t outweigh her desire to enjoy a decent quality of life.
Then, during a weeklong trip to Florida for a volleyball tournament, someone broke into the family’s rental car. Among the items stolen: a bag carrying a Phillips Hard Start, a.k.a. “Brenna’s life.” (Ironically, the AED was later returned).
“I think we were all just afraid,” Sarah Futrell said. “We didn’t know what the future held for us.”
That helpless feeling dissipated with a phone call shortly after they returned home. There’d been a cancellation at the Mayo Clinic, and, if Brenna could get there, the appointment was hers.
After three days of testing designed to replicate her Long QT, Dr. Ackerman finalized his results.
He gave Brenna a choice. He could simply read his findings, medical jargon and all, or he could talk about her life and how her condition might affect it moving forward. She chose the latter option.
She remembers hearing the following words: “I find everything to be insignificant.” Her diagnosis of Long QT was officially vacated.
“Instead of that one moment when I was told my whole childhood was being taken from me, it was like somehow I got all of that back,” she said. “I was going to be able to do all the things I never thought I’d be able to do again.”
‘Such a relief’
Brenna’s role on the Wildcats isn’t too dissimilar to a heartbeat—vital, yet always in the background. As a defensive specialist, she comes in on the back row with the responsibility to pass and serve.
“These kids get no recognition in the paper,” Wine said.
Still, Brenna’s efforts earned her a second-team all Commonwealth District nod as Mountain View snagged a spot in the four-team district tournament field. On the season, she compiled 37 aces, 117 dimes (a new stat denoting perfect serve-receive passes) and 117 digs.
A 16-year-old senior who skipped first grade, Brenna always conveyed a maturity beyond her years. Entering the fall, only a handful of teammates knew about her condition. Even to those who did, it didn’t become an excuse.
“A lot of people would use that stuff to their advantage,” junior Callie Knight said. “But I’ve never once heard Brenna complain about her condition.”
On Nov.17, Mountain View’s senior night, Eric Futrell roved the bleachers angling for the perfect shot of Brenna. Opportunities abounded, as she tallied four kills, three aces and eight digs in a three-set sweep of Brooke Point. The AED bag was nowhere in sight.
After the match, a grinning Brenna listened as teammates read a letter of appreciation to cap senior night festivities. Everyone laughed and ate cake.
Then again, this whole season has felt like a party.
“Junior year was all about staying alive,” she said. “It really was. It was a battle to win the game, but also a battle internally that no one else knew about. Now, it’s just a battle to win the game. It’s such a relief.”