Three years ago American International College men’s basketball player Sesoo Ikpah was the picture of health and stamina, barely getting a breather in games as he led the Yellow Jackets in minutes played (33.6) as a sophomore.
But, then, his seemingly healthy older brother Tav’s heart stopped in 2009. Tav, just 24 years old at the time, was revived by paramedics and eventually diagnosed with a heart defect. Their mother Judith Ikpah, who works at University of Pennsylvania Hospital, wanted her four other children tested for the condition in case it was genetic.
Sesoo – the collegiate basketball player — was the only sibling that was discovered to have the same problem.
“One of my tests – my EKG – was similar to that of my brother’s, and the doctors decided they wanted to proceed with caution,” Ikpah said. “It was May, and from that point on, they said I would not be able to play and I needed to take some medicine.”
“He was an incredibly conditioned athlete – it was just shocking,” AIC head coach Art Luptowski said.
While there was a miniscule chance that Ikpah’s heart would fail – less than one percent – there was still a chance, plus a family history. Ikpah was heartbroken – literally and figuratively.
“It was terrible,” Ikpah said.
“He wouldn’t take no for an answer,” Luptowski said. “He kept hoping it would get better but I talked to the doctors and I knew it wouldn’t. It was just so sad.”
Ikpah missed the 2009-10 season, but remained close to the team by attending every practice and every possible game. But he was only able to sit and watch.
Doctors finally recommended Ikpah be implanted with an experimental defibrillator device as part of a research study for subcutaneous implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) for sudden cardiac arrest. Defibrillators monitor the heart’s rhythm and deliver a life-saving electric shock when a harmful arrhythmia is detected. Ikpah was the first patient to be implanted with the device at the Hospital of University of Pennsylvania on Aug. 27, 2010.
It would have taken Ikpah three or four months to recover from the procedure for a typical defibrillator, but he was cleared to play by doctors in October because it is so much less invasive.
“It’s not as invasive as the normal procedure because that would have required cutting me open and actually going into my heart,” Ikpah said. “They cut a pouch into my skin and the device sits there. The leads are right under my skin and are tied to my rib bone [rather than directly to the heart].”
While Ikpah was ready to get back on the court – and had medical clearance and the support of his parents – Luptowski was a little apprehensive.
“I didn’t jump at this,” Luptowski said. “I went down [to the hospital] after he had the device put in and talked the doctor who did it and a representative for the manufacturer of the device because it was such a new procedure.”
The head coach had every reason to be anxious about letting Ikpah play on the team again. On New Year’s Day of 2003, Luptowski watched one of his AIC players — Samuel Gil Alfaro – collapse and die on the court at practice. The 23-year-old was a senior that had an undiagnosed heart condition an autopsy later revealed.
“We lost a kid,” Luptowski said. “This is not an abstract. We had a kid drop dead on the floor. We lived through it. I was really apprehensive. I did not want to go through it again – I wanted to air on the side of caution.”
At the same time, Luptowski knew Ikpah did not want to have his career end like this. With blessings from doctors and his family, and finally his coach, Ikpah remained a member of the Yellow Jackets with intentions of competing again.
However, NCAA scholarship limits kept him off the court in games last year. AIC honored Ikpah’s scholarship although the program already had 10 scholarship players – the Division II basketball limit. Since he would have been the 11th scholarship player, Ikpah was not allowed to participate in games last season, but was granted a medical hardship waiver and began practicing in December 2010.
Ikpah practiced, and while he waited to compete again, he finished his bachelor’s degree in biochemistry. He worked out and regained some of the weight he had lost during the ordeal. On Nov. 11 against NYIT, the extremely patient Ikpah played his first official game since Feb. 24, 2009. He led the Yellow Jackets with 13 points and 34 minutes played.
“Most of the guys I had played with before had graduated so it was like playing with a whole new team,” Ikpah said. “It felt good to play and have my jersey on and not have to sit on the sideline during warm-ups.”
Ikpah has started all 15 games for the Yellow Jackets, and is averaging 31.4 minutes per game – the second-most on the squad. He has contributed 7.6 points and 3.3 rebounds per contest, and Luptowski is happy to have such an easy source of inspiration on the team.
“He’s my kind of player,” Luptowski said. “He’s hard-nosed and an excellent defender. He will do anything to help you win. He never takes a play or a day off. I let the team know what he’s risking just so he can play the game. A lot of guys say they love to play. ‘Do you love to play? Would you get something the size of a black box put in your chest for the rest of your life just so you could play? How much do you really love to play?’”
Ikpah, a native of Williamstown, N.J., is a graduate student in clinical psychology with aspirations of going to medical school.