Jerry West and Atrial Fibrillation

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All-Star basketball player Jerry West died with atrial fibrillation on Jun 12, 2024, at the age of 86. He played for the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1960s and early ’70s, was named to 12 All-NBA teams along with five All-Defense teams, and is still the only player in NBA history to win a Finals MVP while playing for the losing team. He averaged 27.0 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 6.7 assists per game.

He had several nicknames, including “The Logo,” because his silhouette was used for the NBA League logo; “Mr. Clutch,” because of his buzzer-beating 60-foot shot that tied Game 3 of the 1970 NBA Finals against the New York Knicks; and “Mr. Outside,” in reference to his perimeter play with the Lakers.

Development of Atrial Fibrillation
More than 30 years before he died, West developed atrial fibrillation, an irregular heartbeat in which the electrical signal from the upper chamber of the heart (atrium), failed to get though to the lower chambers (the ventricles). This prevented the upper-heart atrium from contracting properly, so that most of blood was circulated to the body by the pumping action of the lower ventricles. Some blood remained in the upper atrium which increased risk for forming clots and the clots in the atrium can break lose and travel to other parts of the body to block blood flow and cause strokes, heart attacks, pulmonary embolisms and sudden death. In the year before he died, he developed congestive heart failure in which the heart became too weak to pump an adequate amount of blood through his body. Shortly before he died, He was hospitalized for three weeks and was released to die at his home.

Early Rise to a Career in Basketball
West was born in Chelyan, West Virginia, where he was the fifth of six children. He said that he felt insecure from “an emotionally-deprived boyhood” caused by his abusive coal-minor electrician father who used to beat him. West claimed that he had to sleep with a loaded shotgun under his bed to defend himself when his father came into his bedroom to beat him. He also suffered terribly when his older brother, David, was killed during the Korean War.

He was the best basketball player in his high school league and led his college team, West Virginia University, to the 1959 NCAA championship final. He was voted the NCAA’s Final Four Most Outstanding Player. After that, he was drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers. He spoke with a high-pitched voice so the other players called him “Tweety Bird”, and his thick Appalachian accent earned him another nickname, “Zeke from Cabin Creek”. He was a star for the Lakers for fourteen years and was the co-captain of the 1960 U.S. Olympic gold medal team. In the NBA, he played in nine NBA Finals and was inducted into the Hall of Fame.

After His Playing Days Ended
From 1976 to 1979, West was head coach of the Lakers. He made the playoffs each of the three years he coached, and won the Western Conference finals once. He then became the Lakers general manager and won six championship rings. From 2002 to 2007, he was general manager of the Memphis Grizzlies and they won their first-ever playoff berths. From 2011 to 2017. he was a Golden State Warriors executive board member, and the Warriors won their first championship in 40 years. From 2017-2024, he was an executive board member of the Los Angeles Clippers. After 30 years of suffering from atrial fibrillation, he died in 2024.

Symptoms of Atrial Fibrillation
If you become dizzy, pass out suddenly, have chest pain, unexplained shortness of breath or a rapid irregular heartbeat, you could have atrial fibrillation, a heartblock in which the normal electrical impulse that starts at the top of the heart and passes to the bottom of the heart to make the heart beat is blocked. This can cause blood to stagnate in the atrium of the upper heart and form clots. A clot can pass to other parts of the body to block blood flow and cause strokes, heart attacks, and lung, kidney, liver and other organ damage. You may need an electrocardiogram to find out if you have some sort of heartblock or atrial fibrillation. If you have a heartblock, you may need drugs to help prevent clotting and treatments to make your heart beat more regularly.

Risk factors for atrial fibrillation include:

  • Age 65 or older
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Overactive thyroid
  • Sleep apnea
  • Heavy alcohol use
  • Heart disease such as congestive heart failure or coronary artery disease
  • Prior heart attack
  • Smoking
  • Obesity

What You Should Learn From This
Atrial fibrillation is the most common type of irregular heart rhythm. It affects up to six million people in the U.S. and causes about 450,000 hospitalizations each year. It can affect people of any age, including children, though it mostly occurs in people over 60. The danger of atrial fibrillation is that it can form clots in the upper heart that can travel to other parts of the body to block blood flow to cause strokes, lung and other organ damage, heart attacks and sudden death. There are effective treatments.

Jerome Alan West
May 28, 1938 – June 12, 2024