As his classmates count down the days to graduation, Douglas High School senior Nolan Sheets has a greater task ahead.
On Monday, he is scheduled for open heart surgery, the latest health challenge in a series of events which began 18 months ago when he fell while snowboarding.
Nolan, 18, is approaching the procedure with the same positive spirit and support from family and friends who have seen him through since the accident.
Nolan and his parents, Mike and Janell Sheets, will be at Sequoia Hospital, in Redwood City, Calif., for the operation.
He is expected to be in the hospital for five or six days, then home to Minden for 6-8 weeks recuperation.
That means no prom, no senior ditch day, or building up last-minute school memories with friends he’s known since kindergarten.
But Nolan vowed that he will graduate with his class May 31.
“If he has to go across the stage in a wheelchair, he will make graduation,” Janell said.
Nolan was snowboarding at Heavenly on Dec. 10, 2011, racing with a friend to the bottom of the hill. From the corner of his eye, he saw a skier come out of the woods. Nolan said he was going too fast to stop.
He doesn’t remember exactly what happened, but his friend said Nolan “flew 35 feet in the air.”
He always wears a helmet, which doctors said probably saved his life.
“After I fell, I remember, I got up and felt fine. I got to the bottom of the hill and I collapsed,” he said.
He dislocated his right clavicle. In most instances, his mother explained, the clavicle pops out. Nolan’s popped in behind his sternum affecting his heart.
He developed a “pseudo-aneurysm,” and underwent emergency surgery to place stents to allow the blood flow to continue.
While recovering at home, Nolan came down with mononucleosis, and finally returned to school after five months’ absence.
He was able to keep up with his school work, and started senior year on schedule in August.
He was manager for the DHS football team, passed a post-accident physical, even took up snowboarding again.
“I couldn’t give that up,” he said.
Somehow, his medical records were misplaced at DHS, and he was required to take another physical to participate in track this spring.
His path crossed with Cody Myers, a certified physician’s assistant at Carson Valley Medical Center in Minden, who gave him a physical.
“He told us he wouldn’t clear Nolan for track because he had a heart murmur,” Janell said. “He said, ‘you need to see a cardiologist.’”
The Sheets were surprised because Nolan had passed regular check ups with his surgeons.
They were referred to Dr. Basil Chryssos, a Carson City cardiologist.
Chryssos diagnosed a “bruit sound” which indicated an interruption of the blood flow.
Paperwork went back and forth between doctors in California and Carson City.
Janell said Chryssos’ diagnosis was borne out and he knew Nolan would need surgery.
“Within 72 hours, he had us hooked up with a world-renowned cardiologist and a cardiovascular surgeon at Sequoia Hospital,” Janell said.
Following an angiogram, it was determined that Nolan had a 60 percent blockage in the artery which supplies blood to the brain and the right arm.
“They’re going to cut right down the middle, to take out the stents that are closing and put in a fake artery,” he said.
Because the damage was to the part of the artery that is so well protected, Nolan’s case is very specialized.
“I’ve got one thing going for me,” Nolan said. “This is very rare for a person my age. I am young and I am healthy.”
Nolan’s older sister Bailey, 19, will keep an eye on the household. Only 16 months apart in age, the two are very supportive, their parents say.
“She’s a phenomenal big sister,” Janell said.
Nolan and Bailey have seen each other through his accident and her treatment for a bipolar disorder.
“We have two phenomenal kids,” Janell said. “Their challenges are as different as night and day, but they have character, integrity, determination, and faith which makes me very, very proud of both of them. They stand behind each other and support each other.”
Nolan’s medical issues didn’t prevent him from being elected to the fall Homecoming court, or stepping out in the Mr. DHS contest.
“The kids at school have been awesome. I couldn’t have a better group of friends. After I first had my angiogram, within 24 hours my phone was going insane with text messages from friends wanting to know how I was,” he said.
The family is putting up a Caring Bridge site so Nolan’s friends can keep up with his progress and leave messages for him.
“We just ask our friends and Nolan’s friends for prayers and good thoughts,” Mike Sheets said.
For Mike, a certified public accountant, and Janell, who retired after 22 years as a Douglas County teacher, the experience has brought their family closer together, if that’s possible.
“This has taught us what can happen in the blink of an eye,” Janell said.
The Sheets are motivated to get the surgery and recovery behind Nolan so as not to interfere with his college plans.
He is to begin freshman year at Holy Cross College adjacent to his beloved Notre Dame in Indiana.
“Notre Dame is my life-long dream, and this is as close as I can get,” he said.
He’s interested in studying psychology.
He hopes to spend the summer with his friends, and has a trip planned to Hawaii.
“I want to thank everyone who’s been there for me,” Nolan said. “A simple phone call or text message can brighten up my day. I try not to let it get me down. There are always people there for you.”