Feb. 10, 2005
by Jonathan Price
It all happened so fast.
Husky junior Kayla Burt spent a mostly low-key evening on New Year's Eve of 2002 with her Husky women's basketball teammates, preparing to ring in 2003 with the traditional 10-second countdown.
Then she blinked.
Her eyes opened not on the upstairs bedroom of her apartment, but on a hospital bed; not on the smiling, excited faces of her teammates, but on a serious-looking doctor. You've had a cardiac arrest, he informed her. You'll never play basketball again.
'At first I didn't really know what to think,' Burt says, nearly two years to the date since waking up in that hospital bed. 'People were sending me all of these get-well messages and I still didn't even know what was going on. When it hit me a couple of months later that I really couldn't play anymore, it was like hitting a brick wall. My whole life I had invested so much time into this game, and now I didn't have any control over the termination of my career.'
Everyone in the town of Arlington, Wash., knew what basketball meant to Burt, who led the Arlington Eagles to the Class 3A state tournament four times between 1998-2001. Burt was the first female player in Snohomish County to surpass the 2,000-point mark for her career, and was named the Everett Herald's Player of the Year in 2000, before sharing the honor with Meadowdale's Kristen O'Neill -- a future UW teammate -- in 2001.
After putting together 45 points, 12 rebounds, 11 steals and five assists in a 2001 win over Anacortes, it became clear that Burt was destined for the big-time. National college recruiting services rated her among the top-100 seniors in the nation, and scholarship offers poured in from around the country.
Burt only needed to see one letter, though, to know where she wanted to play.
'Living so close to Seattle, I have always been a Husky,' she says. 'I just loved being around the UW women's games when I was younger. Watching them as they were recruiting me really made it a reality for me.'
Burt arrived at Washington in the fall of 2001 on the heels of the team's run to the Elite Eight of the 2001 NCAA Tournament. She found the program to be everything she had imagined, and more.
'I loved it here,' she recalls of that first fall. 'Because I lived so close, I was able to get to know the girls before I even got here, so I already felt comfortable by the time that the season started. Everyone made me feel at home. I loved my first year.'
Burt's happiness and confidence translated to success on the court, where the freshman averaged 5.6 points per game, including a team-high and season-best 18 points versus UCLA.
Through the first 10 games of Burt's sophomore season, all of which she started at guard for UW, it appeared nothing could slow her down. After hitting 31 percent of her three-point attempts during her freshman campaign, Burt was the Pac-10's most dangerous outside shooter through the early part of the 2002-03 season, knocking down 54 percent of her long-range attempts while leading the Huskies to a 9-1 record.
On Dec. 28, Burt scored eight points with three rebounds, three assists and three steals in a 77-69 UW win at Washington State.
Barely 48 hours later, she awoke in a hospital bed to the news that her career was over.
Doctors in Seattle initially diagnosed Burt with Long Q-T Syndrome, a disease of the heart that most certainly meant the end to the Husky's promising career. Doctors at the prestigious Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, however, offered a different possibility when Burt visited them not for a second opinion, but simply to 'better understand the kind of life I could live with that diagnosis.'
'In Minnesota, they told me that they didn't think that I had Long Q-T,' Burt says. 'At that point, I really started thinking that I could play again.'
Burt talked with her family about the possibility, but otherwise kept her intentions largely to herself while working during the 2003-04 season on the UW sidelines as a student assistant coach. Throughout the season, however, Burt consulted with doctors and underwent a battery of tests, always with the goal of returning to the court in the fall of 2004.
'After each test that I completed, I began to get more confidant and the idea of me coming back to play became much more realistic,' she says. 'To me, the pros of playing again outweighed the cons. If I felt like my life was in danger by playing, then I wouldn't have done it.'
Finally on Aug. 17, 2004 -- more than 19 months since the cardiac incident -- Burt was cleared to play by doctors, and granted permission by the university to rejoin the team. Along with her parents, Burt signed a release form under which the family assumes all risks associated with Burt's return, and absolves the University of Washington from responsibility for any potential negative consequences related to her condition.
'I was so thankful that Washington gave me the opportunity to make a decision about coming back,' says Burt, who plays with a defibrillator in her chest. 'It was such an impossible door to open. They left the decision up to me, though, and I wanted to play.'
Burt returned on Oct. 31 to a standing ovation at Washington's first exhibition game of the year, taking the opening tip straight to the hoop for a layin just seven seconds into the game. Two weeks later -- 687 days since the Dec. 28, 2002 game at Washington State -- Burt played in her first official game, completing a return few thought possible. Since that game, Burt has averaged 9.2 points and 3.2 rebounds per game, including a career-high 19 points at Oregon on Jan. 13.
'It has been tough, every practice and every game,' she says. 'When you come back you want to just go all out, but when you are out two years it isn't easy getting back into the flow of things. It takes awhile. I think that as each game goes by, I am getting better at that. I just want to have fun this year and go out there to help my team in the best way that I can.'