Thursday, April 18, 2024

Student athlete Ryan Rainville diagnosed in the ‘Nick of Time’


CHELAN— Rob Rainville longed to help just one student.

The Chelan High School P.E. teacher remembers chatting last spring with his longtime colleague Joe Harris. That particular day, members of the Nick of Time Foundation, a nonprofit organization that screens young athletes’ for heart problems, were visiting Chelan to test the hearts of around 250 students.

“I remember telling Joe, ‘If we could just find one kid and help them, then it’s worth it, right?’” Rainville recalled.

Little did he know that kid would be his son.

Ryan Rainville felt disinterested in being tested. A three-sport athlete in football, basketball and baseball, he asked his dad to skip the process, but Rob convinced him to attend the free screening before school.

Shortly afterward, Rob noticed Ryan wasn’t in his first period class and became concerned. Back in the school’s gymnasium, medical personnel had tested Ryan’s heartbeat and found some irregularities and wanted to undergo further examination.

“I was pretty surprised because I honestly thought that I’ve always been a good, healthy athlete. Then everything else happened where I was one of the only kids that had something wrong,” he said. “I was kind of just going through the motions.”

After school that day, doctors diagnosed him with Ryan with Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome (WPW) which, according to John Hopkins Medicine, is a type of abnormal heartbeat that affects 1-3 out of 1,000 people worldwide. Sufferers may experience episodes of tachycardia, when the heart reaches over 100 beats per minute.

The simple screening turned into instant heartache for Rob. Ryan had never shown any symptoms and received a clear physical every year, yet had WPW since birth.

“At first, as a parent, you kind of sink and you’re thinking about all the sports and all the things he wants to do and being healthy,” the former athletic director said. “All the years of playing high school sports, college sports, pro sports, I never had an EKG (electrocardiogram). That’s not something that’s a common practice even though cardiac arrest is the number one killer of student athletes in our country.’

Rob remembers wondering: How could this happen?

Darla Varrenti asked the same question on Labor Day, 2004. During a football practice in Mars, PA, her youngest son Nick suffered sudden cardiac arrest. He died that day leaving a hole in his family but, eventually, a legacy of compassion.

In January of 2006, Varrenti founded Nick of Time with her sister Sue and her brother-in-law. They began with sudden cardiac arrest awareness around young people and educated about the importance of Automated External Defibrillators. In 2010, Nick of Time started screening hearts as a preventative effort.

 “After Nick died we started to do research on what this was and how it could be prevented,” Varrenti said. “We weren’t doing enough as a society to make sure our kids were heart safe.”

Her foundation has done just that. Since its inception, Nick of Time has performed over 90 screenings of more than 27,000 youths in Washington alone. The organization has also visited 13 additional states. Over 600 children have needed follow-ups and everyone who’s had a heart issue has received treatment to correct it, including Ryan. Sitting down with the Rainvilles, she explained her passion to prevent other families from experiencing this type of tragedy. 

“She deserves all the credit because she’s had to endure something that us, as parents, would be the worst nightmare,” Rob said. “The only way we’d have found out was if he's on the ground with an AED attached to him.”

Shortly after Ryan’s diagnosis, his mom Jenifer drove to Seattle Children’s Hospital for more testing. Eventually he had a procedure where doctors placed a catheter through his neck and hips into his carotid artery and fixed the extra electrical pathway in his heart. After the five-hour procedure, he was in recovery and returned to athletic activity a few weeks later. 

“We told Ryan that he could just keep doing his thing, that it wouldn’t stop him from playing because he’d been playing all along… Our whole hope was, we didn’t want to keep kids from being active or being in sports or doing the things that they love,” Varrenti said. “As a mom who lost a child to sudden cardiac arrest, I would never tell them to let their kid go out there and play if I didn’t think it was safe to do so.”

Through his untimely passing, Nick Varrenti has inspired his family to help hundreds of young athletes like Ryan Rainville. In remembering Nick, Darla didn’t canonize him, but spoke fondly of a son with a heart for others.

“He was your typical 16½ year old young man,” she said. “He could be grumpy. He could be all kinds of things, but he was very loving, loved his family so much. I think he would be glad that we had not moved on, but that we’ve found a way to do something in his memory that helps other people too.”

Every passing practice and game brings Ryan closer to the finish line of his prep career. While he competes intensely as usual, the experience has broadened his view on athletics. 

“I don’t want to say I took it for granted, but it definitely puts a different perspective on sports now,” the football captain said.

His father agrees. The Rainvilles no longer carry an AED on road trips and Rob, an assistant coach for the Goats, watches his son from the sidelines. He and Varrenti stay in contact as she called the Rainvilles part of the Nick of Time family.

“I’m forever grateful and I told her that,” he said, recalling a conversation with Varrenti. “‘Had you not started this program, who knows what would’ve happened to my son, now or later?’”

For the Rainvilles, that question need not be answered as one young man’s story has inspired a legacy of hope and of heart.



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