ESU Graduate Credits Tennis Coach for Second Chance at Life
Becky (Martin) Sieg, then 12 years old, told her mom, Kerry, that she was having chest pains after soccer practice.
“They say to athletes who push themselves at practice that it’s, ‘no pain, no gain,’” Sieg recalled. “I said to my mom that I didn’t think I should feel like this, like I’m going to pass out from the chest pain.”Sieg and her mom went to her pediatrician, who told them that it was just growing pains. When she went again, years later, she was told it was just anxiety.
Various forms of the same diagnosis followed Sieg throughout her tennis career at East Stroudsburg University, where she graduated in 2005.
She often threw up and shook during and after matches for Coach Al McCormick’s team. The Warriors often had to skip dinners after road matches to get her home, one time they even had to stop at a hospital. At the hospital doctors were concerned about her high heart rate, but ultimately felt it was caused by anxiety.
But during a Presidents’ Day 2005 match in Tenafly, New Jersey, against New Jersey Institute of Technology, McCormick sensed something was different after Sieg and her doubles partner beat the previously unbeaten tandem from NJIT.
Becky said the doubles match was “one of the best matches of my life.” She said she felt great going into her singles event.
Then things changed.
“My body was done,” she said. “I felt all the symptoms I’d been having multiply. I felt cloudy. My heart was racing. My opponent kept asking, ‘Are you OK?’
“She hit a short shot. I should have dived for it, but my body gave up. I fell to the ground but didn’t pass out. I remember being mad at coach McCormick for stopping the match.
“I threw up all night but didn’t go to the hospital. I met up with my mom and eventually went to the local hospital when we got home.”
She went to Gettysburg Hospital near her family’s home and initially received the same diagnosis. The first doctor who saw her was going to send her home.
Fortunately, there was a shift change. A second doctor, Dr. Stefan Rosenbach, decided to put her on a heart monitor.
“My heart was racing, 250 to 300 beats a minute. I was in V-tach (ventricular tachycardia). They had to shock me twice with an AED (Automated External Defibrillators) to keep me alive,” Sied said.
“I had an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (ICD ) the next day.”
After invasive testing at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Sieg was diagnosed with Arrhythmogenic Right Ventricular Dysplasia Cardiomyopathy (ARVD), a genetic, progressive heart condition in which the muscle of the right ventricle is replaced by fat and fibrosis which causes abnormal life threatening heart rhythms.
“Dr. Rosenbach saved my life,” she said. “Coach Al saved my life.
“It started with the pediatrician telling me it was growing pains and anxiety. I never once had an EKG (electrocardiogram). All it would have taken was one. I got lucky. I could have died.”
Fourteen years later, Sieg, now married for nearly a decade with two children, needed a heart transplant. A perfect match was found this spring.
Fate was on the now 36-year-old Becky Sieg’s side once again. Doctors at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, discovered during the procedure that her heart was much worse than expected. She was living off half a heart. She likely would not have lived another six months had she not received the transplant.
“I feel lucky to be here,” Sieg said.
That is an understatement.
Amazingly, not only did she survive, so did her brother, Travis Martin, who graduated from ESU two years ahead of his sister.
Travis tested positive for ARVD shortly after his sister was diagnosed. Throughout childhood, Travis never had symptoms like Becky. He also played multiple sports, including tennis, as a youth. He was a triathlete and did the famous Ironman competition in Lake Placid, N.Y.
They had a special bond as siblings. In fact, Becky went to ESU because Travis was there.
Travis was part of McCormick’s first tennis team at ESU. He helped the first-year head coach in ways beyond a college senior.
“I was hired on a Tuesday,” McCormick said. “Thursday morning, we were leaving for a match at Slippery Rock. I didn’t know anyone’s names. Travis got me through those first few matches.
McCormick’s connection to the Martin family grew when Becky came to ESU.
“As a brother,” Travis said, “one of the hardest things I’ve ever been through was seeing Becky’s face before she was going into surgery. “It was like, ‘Is this it, or is this the next part?’”
“One of the hardest parts of this journey for me is seeing him go through this as well,” Becky said. “He is my hero. I look up to him in so many ways.”
Becky now makes weekly trips to Johns Hopkins to make sure her body does not reject the new heart. It will take six to 12 months before she’ll begin to feel good again.
Between the significance of the surgery, the anti-rejection medicine and the steroids, each morning is a challenge.
“It’s tough,” she said. “I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t. I wake up shaky and jittery, not feeling like myself. But, I’m alive, and the tradeoff is well worth it.”
Now Travis and Becky are both married, each with two kids – one of which is a carrier for the same disease that ended their athletic careers. The siblings remain close. They live within 20 minutes of each other and their parents Kerry and Daniel.
Becky said she is following in her parents’ footsteps with her positive outlook on life. It is the only way she knows to cope with life’s curveballs.
“This teaches you the value of life,” she said. “Life is a gift. I’m very well aware of the fact that in so many ways I shouldn’t be here.
“I’ve been given a second chance and I’m not taking that for granted.”
“They somehow have maintained a positive attitude,” Travis said of his parents. “They taught us and led us without handing anything to us.”
Becky is excited to return to her photography career. Travis is a physical education teacher and tennis coach at New Oxford High School.
Travis turned to coaching as one way to give back to the sport he loves. He has built a consistent team at New Oxford. He coaches the boys and girls programs there. Both programs have averaged 10-plus wins each of the last 10 years. The girls grabbed a share of this past season’s York-Adams Interscholastic Athletic League (YAIAA) for the first time in program history.
In addition to being an accomplished photographer, Becky also is an advocate for those who may be suffering from ARVD, a disease that affects one in 5,000 people and accounts for one-fifth of sudden cardiac death in people 35 years old and younger.
As Becky Sieg and her brother, Travis Martin, have learned, life is not guaranteed.
They are making the most of it, despite the obstacles thrown in their paths.