NHL Goalie Receives Expert Guidance from Atrium Health Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute Prior to Open Heart Surgery

06.26.2024 Atrium Health News | Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute

Henrik Lundqvist’s health journey and diagnosis chronicled in new Netflix documentary   

CHARLOTTE, N.C., June 26, 2024 A New York Rangers jersey bearing the number 30 will forever hang in the rafters at Madison Square Garden. The retired jersey honors NHL Hall of Fame goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who retired after a 15-year career with the Rangers due to a heart issue. Dr. Dermot Phelan, a renowned sports cardiologist at Atrium Health Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute, played a significant role in the diagnosis and treatment guidelines for Lundqvist, who was diagnosed in 2020 with a dysfunctional bicuspid aortic valve, a condition that can require major heart surgery.

Lundqvist faced the realization his condition could lead to severe complications, including heart failure and death, if not properly treated. For someone with minimal symptoms who wanted to continue to play, the decision regarding whether to proceed with major open-heart surgery was extremely difficult. The second opinion offered by Phelan was instrumental in developing Lundqvist’s treatment plan.

Phelan is a leading figure in sports cardiology. He serves as the team cardiologist for the Carolina Panthers and Charlotte Football Club. He chairs the NFL cardiovascular task force and advises the NBA cardiovascular committee. Additionally, he leads the cardiology evaluation of players at the and MLB Draft Combine each year.

"It’s really tough for athletes to accept that they have a cardiac condition," said Phelan. "They build their entire life and identity around their sport. Being told they can’t do that anymore can be devastating. It’s a grieving process and you have to allow individuals to go through it."

Bicuspid aortic valve disease is a condition where the aortic valve has only two leaflets instead of the usual three.  Occasionally this can lead to improper blood flow and potentially severe heart complications. It affects about 1-2% of the general population and is more common in males. Over time, the valve might start to leak or narrow, which can lead to serious issues like heart failure or even sudden death. In such cases, surgery for an aortic valve replacement becomes necessary to avoid these dangerous outcomes.

Lundqvist’s journey through major heart surgery is documented in the film “Open Heart,” released in May and now available on Netflix. It follows the star goalie as he prepares to undergo an aortic valve replacement procedure and the consultation with physicians who ultimately gave him advice on whether he should continue his NHL career.

After his surgery, Lundqvist faced a complication known as pericarditis, which causes swelling and irritation of the tissue around the heart. Approximately 10-40% of patients undergoing cardiac surgery may develop pericarditis, known as post pericardiotomy syndrome. This condition is characterized by inflammation and can lead to symptoms such as chest pain, fever and fluid accumulation around the heart.

One of the film's most powerful moments occurs when Lundqvist discusses his diagnosis with Phelan, asking "if I was your brother, would you tell me not to play?”

"I would," Phelan replied.

Lundqvist said he had been convincing his wife for months that he was going to continue to play, but hearing Phelan say these words was a turning point.

“I think that’s when it sank in,” Lundqvist said. “There were a lot of emotions in that moment – realizing not only that I wasn’t going to play, but also that I probably needed surgery soon."

In 2021, Lundqvist signed a contract to continue his playing career with the Washington Capitals. However, following surgery and subsequent complications, he decided instead to retire.

As director of the Atrium Health Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute Sports Cardiology Center, Phelan works closely with his patients, often involving their family members and support systems, to help them navigate the emotional turmoil and grief that accompanies such life-changing news. By focusing on the holistic well-being of his patients, Phelan ensures they receive the compassionate care needed to adjust to their new reality and find purpose beyond their athletic careers.

"When an athlete’s career ends due to a heart condition, it’s crucial to address both their physical and emotional needs," Phelan said. "We guide them through this transition and encourage them to see that there is more to life after this. We try to help them find new opportunities and remain positive about their future.”

As Lundqvist transition to his next chapter, he continues to inspire others both on and off the ice. Lundqvist has joined TNT as a commentator on NHL games, bringing his unique perspective and expertise to fans across the nation. Additionally, he is actively involved in philanthropic efforts in New York City, working with various charities and organizations to give back to the community that supported him throughout his career.