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House on the Hill: The Heart of a Champion

October 27, 2014

As Frank Tavani lay on a gurney in the emergency room at Easton Hospital on April 25, 2014, Matt Bayly, Lafayette College's head athletic trainer, saw a look in the veteran football coach's eyes that was foreign to both of them.

The stoic look normally plastered on his face had been replaced by a look of fear as doctors insisted he needed a cardiac catherization which would help determine the extent of damage his heart had suffered.

"For a suspended period of time, he was no longer a head football coach at a Division I institution," said Bayly, who was by Tavani's side that night at the hospital. "He was now a cardiac patient waiting to have his cardiac output restored. There were answers we didn't have and the natural tendency is to start on the 'What If's' and that's when I saw the very human side of him."

That very human side peaked that weekend and spilled over into the following weeks during Tavani's recovery from his heart attack that required him to have three stents put in to repair two blockagess in his right coronary artery.

Lafayette Football Head Coach Frank Tavani

"I couldn't believe it," said Tavani, who was 60 at the time. "I had just had a physical two weeks earlier and passed with flying colors."

These days, aside from a strained calf muscle sustained while walking to remain healthy, Tavani still owns that clean bill of health. He walks three to five miles a day, gets six to eight hours of sleep a night instead of three to four, makes it a point to watch his fat and cholesterol intake, does reflexology and has made a valiant effort to keep his stress under control, no easy task for someone as passionate and competitive as him.

But he admits, as do those around him, there is a noticeable difference in the way he has managed his anxiety.

"There are going to be times when the heat of the moment gets the best of him," Bayly said. "It's a bizarre scenario for anybody with a little bit of an understanding to see Frank's head about to pop off and he has this trail of Matt Bayly and (Lafayette College team physician) Jeff Goldstein trailing behind him telling him to breathe. But by and large, he is very conscious about needing to manage his emotions and keep his blood pressure down as much as possible. There is certainly an element of truth when he tells people, `You don't want me to blow my stents.'"

Tavani was asymptomatic until just two days prior to being admitted to the hospital. On Wednesday, April 23, he recalled feeling what he thought was indigestion stemming from having eaten dinner much later than usual. He took some Tums and all was well. The next night, though, that same discomfort returned, and this time it lasted for nearly 30 minutes, and he hadn't eaten dinner nearly as late. The Tums did nothing to help matters.

In hopes of things simply resolving on their own, Tavani headed to bed, but didn't sleep well.

The next morning, Tavani took his vitamins and blood pressure and cholesterol medications and drank his coffee. Then, as he walked out the door, his wife, Agnes, suggested he stop in to see Dr. Goldstein.

"I just looked at the parking space and thought, 'maybe I should go see Jeff,'" Tavani recalled.

Dr. Goldstein took Tavani's blood pressure and did an EKG.

"For a suspended period of time, he was no longer a head football coach at a DivisionI institution. He was now a cardiac patient waiting to have his cardiac output restored."

-- Matt Bayly, Lafayette's Director of Sports Medicine

"There was a blip at the end and we talked for 15-20 minutes and he examined me. He sent me to the ER. He called his cardiologist, Dr. Joe Schiavone, and he happened to be on duty and in the ER. He was waiting for me when I got there. I don't even remember sitting for 30 seconds in the waiting room. Next thing you know, I've got an IV in, a chest X-Ray and blood work."

One of the most important tests doctors did was analyze Tavani's cardiac enzymes, something the heart releases during a heart attack. The level of the first reading was borderline, which forced them to be rechecked every hour for three hours. His numbers kept rising and that's when doctors knew he needed a cardiac catherization.

But with the catherization lab having closed already and Schiavone wanting his team of doctors present, doctors put Tavani on a blood thinner and he had to wait until Monday for the test.

"Let me tell you, I couldn't sleep," Tavani admitted. "They had to give me something over the weekend. It wasn't good. It was not a good weekend waiting to go through that cath."

Because of the damage to Tavani's heart and the arteries that were blocked, the procedure took longer than expected - three hours - and Tavani even woke up a couple of times.

"With the kind of blockages I had and where they were, it could have been days or even hour and it could have been a major kaboom,'" Tavani said.

Thankfully for Tavani's family, which now includes three grandchildren, and the Lafayette College community, his heart is functioning much better these days.

And while nothing Tavani went through was easy, without even realizing it initially, he's helped countless people who had heard and/or read about his trials and tribulations.

"In the stories that were written about me, the cardiologist's name was in there and all kinds of people were calling to get an appointment," Tavani said. "I've gotten so many emails from people I don't even know saying, 'I want you to know I got off my chair and made an appointment to go see him.' It's amazing the number of people it affected. If it helped one more person get checked out, then it's a win."

"I can't say enough about the treatment from top to bottom. I, like some, have had some not too positive experiences with doctors. But Easton Hospital's cardiac unit is as good as any. Right from the people who came in every three hours to check on you and the people coming to clean the floor. In that situation you want to feel like you're in the right place. It certainly felt like I was."

By Mandy Housenick | House on the Hill