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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Gonzaga Prep’s Ryan Decker turned open-heart surgery into a success story to help others

Ryan Decker is a senior at Gonzaga Prep, carries a 3.98 GPA and played varsity basketball for the Bullpups following open-heart surgery. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

The best and worst day of Ryan Decker’s life came in the seventh grade.

Flat on her back in the operating room, Decker was facing open-heart surgery.

In some ways the procedure wasn’t necessary; instead she could give up sports and her active lifestyle.

No chance of that. But Decker feared that life would never be the same, no matter what she did.

She was right. Life is even better.

Now a senior at Gonzaga Prep, Decker is a star on the court and in the classroom. She’s also a comfort to children who are facing the same challenges Decker confronted in the fall of 2013.

She had been diagnosed with a coronary artery anomaly, which lessens the amount of blood that goes to the heart and eventually brain during heavy exercise. It left her dizzy and prone to fainting while playing sports.

“One day my mom came out and pulled me off the soccer field and said ‘The doctor called and said you’re not allowed to play anymore,’ ” Decker recalled.

For Decker, the choice was easy.

“I was mad at my parents for even thinking about not having the surgery,” said Decker, who recovered and went on to play soccer and basketball at Gonzaga Prep.

She endured months of pain and was so weak she couldn’t lift a backpack, and she had to carry a pillow over her chest for fear of being bumped in the halls.

Six months later, she had lost 30 pounds and much of her muscle. However, she’d gained an appreciation for the things she’d taken for granted.

“I was able to see the amount of love in my community,” said Decker, who recalled her mother, Megan, staying home and cooking meals.

“It really was beautiful to see how everybody cared for me,” Decker said.

Slowly at first, Decker found her way back. On the court, she made the varsity basketball teams as a junior and senior.

“What I love about Ryan is her growth in four years at Gonzaga Prep,” said Corinne Kelsey, an assistant basketball coach. “Academically she has challenged herself, but she’s also taken opportunities to help others.”

Decker also carries a 3.98 grade-point average and plans to major in sports management or nutrition in college.

Partly because of her surgery and recovery, Decker said she’s fascinated by the human body, “how we work and how it all plays into nutrition.”

Healing takes all forms, and Decker is mature enough to look past the physical pain. She volunteers at Mended Little Hearts, a nonprofit group that provides services to patients and families of children with congenital heart disease.

Decker spends hours talking to children who are about to undergo heart surgery.

“I try to prepare them for what to expect,” Decker said. “I tell them that this is how you’re going to feel when you go into the hospital.”

“It’s a good start to helping kids – a lot of the parents too, for them to be able to hear my story,” Decker said. “I tell them that it’s going to be OK, and it puts their minds at ease.”