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Letestu putting family first after heart muscle inflammation diagnosis

Jets center, 34, wants to resume career, but fatherhood more important

by Tim Campbell @TimNHL / Staff Writer

Mark Letestu said he feels completely normal, and thankful, after the Winnipeg Jets center was diagnosed at an early stage with myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle that will keep him out at least six months.

"I feel great," the 34-year-old said Friday. "I don't feel like there's anything wrong at all."

Myocarditis, usually caused by a viral infection, can affect the heart muscle, reducing its ability to pump and causing rapid or abnormal heart rhythms, according to the Mayo Clinic.

The suspected diagnosis shut Letestu down after he played the first seven games of the season for the Jets. He was then sent to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota for further tests and confirmation.

"You're absolutely at risk for a cardiac episode on the ice," Letestu said. "I'm sure somewhere a doctor is rolling his eyes at some of my descriptions, but there's always risk, depending on how bad the inflammation is affecting your heart. If it just can't pump, you're certainly at risk for something catastrophic to happen.

"Even through training camp, I had felt normal. If you're tired the next day, you'd have thought it was just because of training camp. Now I know the heart might not have been pumping the way it should have been, you can attribute it to this now in hindsight, but I felt normal. There was nothing like coming back to the bench tight-chested or winded in any abnormal way. I think I'm just lucky that the doctors and the staff cared enough to look over those tests to find something."

Myocarditis was not the first thing Winnipeg's medical staff thought of during training camp physicals and tests, but something was off with Letestu's routine electrocardiogram and a follow-up echocardiogram.

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"Might have been machine error," Letestu said. "Results were kind of off, but nothing certain, so the next step was getting an MRI on my heart. And all the while I was still playing, because nobody was certain enough that something was wrong enough to shut you down."

The MRI showed signs of myocarditis and to be certain, the Mayo Clinic conducted another MRI and a PET (positron emission tomography) scan, confirming the condition.

Between Letestu's MRI exams, at the end of September and last weekend at Mayo Clinic, doctors have already detected some improvement in his heart, he said. Medication won't be needed at this point, but the process back to a normal heart and being cleared for full activity is six months.

Letestu said he will be allowed to work out lightly and live a mostly normal life while he's away from the ice.

"That would drive me a bit crazy to have to kick my feet up and do nothing," he said. "I'm allowed to work out not under supervision, but if I can't complete a sentence, then I'm going too hard. My guideline is that I have to work out at a conversational level and be mindful of the tax I'm putting on myself. In the meantime, I've been able to come home and spend some time with my family."

His wife, Brett, and their children Caleb, 8, Dylan 6, and daughter Blake, 4, will have some unexpected bonus time with him this season.

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Letestu said that's been welcome and he's already talking optimistically that at some point in the first half of 2020, he'll be able to resume playing.

"Finding out there's not going to be any long-term, lingering effects, or at least the doctors think that I've progressed at this point, it's pretty likely that at the end of six months, the inflammation will be gone and I'll be able to be cleared to get back at it," he said. "The fact that there won't be any lingering effects and I won't have to be worried about chasing my kids up the stairs makes me pretty happy about what's gone on."

Letestu signed a one-year, $700,000 contract with the Jets on July 2. He has 210 points (93 goals, 117 assists) in 567 NHL games in 11 seasons with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Columbus Blue Jackets, Edmonton Oilers and Jets. Letestu played two NHL games for Columbus last season; he had 50 points (21 goals, 29 assists) in 64 games for Cleveland of the American Hockey League.

He said there is some disappointment lingering that, having taken full advantage of his fresh start with the Jets, who were looking for a veteran center for their fourth line, another obstacle is in his way.

"I think I'm still processing that part," Letestu said. "It's disappointing, especially where I am on my career arc. You spend all of last year in the minor leagues and then have a pretty good camp and make the team and I was trying to re-establish something. Then they tell you [that] you can't play anymore because of something not in my control at all.

"But I've always been a guy with good perspective and big picture; it's just what I do. It's hockey. I think if something like that affected who I was, like being a dad to my kids, that's when it would be really disappointing. I've been pretty fortunate to have had a pretty good career to this point and I'm hopeful to continue it afterwards, but if that doesn't happen, that's kind of how it was meant to be."

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