Sam Peterman of Sweet Home High School visited the Cleveland Clinic in March in the hope that someone there could help her return to running.
She had been sidelined for several weeks during a worsening of her medical condition known as neurocardiogenic syncope (NCS) that causes fainting. Peterman went to Ohio for a second opinion, hoping to find a way out of what could be called a personal nightmare.
She was discussing the situation with Dr. Peter Aziz, one of the nation's top experts on the condition. Then he said the words she'd longed to hear for a couple of months.
"My favorite part of the appointment was that Dr. Aziz said, 'We're going to get you back to running,' " Peterman said. "That was probably the best news I've had in a long time."
It had been a difficult winter for Peterman and her family, but that moment was the beginning of a turnaround. The talented runner is on schedule to start her college career at Duke University in the fall.
Sam and father, Dale, recently sat down for a interview to tell the story about her absence from running — and her return.
You might remember Samantha's accomplishments. Peterman was one of the top long-distance high school runners in the area the past few years. She won 12 Section VI championships, and qualified for 10 state championships in her career at Sweet Home. She has one of the faster times in the 1,500-meter run in Section VI history. Whenever she ran a race, she fainted upon crossing the finish line. Dale had to catch her to prevent serious injury.
"She had a great high school career," Brian Lombardo, her coach at Sweet Home, said. "It's in the back of your head, wondering what if she didn't have those issues all the way through. But I don't want to diminish what she did do."
Doctors allowed her to compete in high school sports, saying there was nothing wrong with her heart, and Sam had successful sophomore and junior seasons. She even picked up some national media attention, including a story in the New York Times. Peterman moved smoothly into cross-country season last fall.
"It was a good senior season," she said. "It wasn't exactly what I had hoped for, but I was really happy that I was able to compete for the whole season, go to the state meet, and run there. It was a good experience."
From there it was on to the winter. And then ...
"Something went wrong," Dale Peterman said. "That's a good way of putting it."
After a few years of Sam's health following a regular and controllable pattern, an alarming incident took place.
"In mid-January when the weather was nice, they were out doing a workout by the track," said Dale, who works at Sweet Home. "I was in the gym, and they brought her to me. She was dazed and confused. It turned out she had gone down in the middle of the workout, which hadn't happened in that type of setting.
"I got her inside and calmed her down, and she passed out again for a second time when she was in my arms. That was a red flag that something was different."
Sam still didn't feel normal the next morning, feeling nauseous. She stayed home from school, and a friend of Dale's at Women & Children's Hospital urged him to bring Sam in for a concussion examination.
"They ran some tests, and she had the flu, which was a relief at that point," Dale said. "We also had been trying a different dosage of the medicine that she had been taking to control the passing-out. We wanted to know if that influenced it. While we were there, the doctor said that she hadn't taken an EKG in a while — and thought she should have one to see if she was all right."
The test score for Long QT Syndrome (LQTS), a condition that causes fast and chaotic heartbeats, came back at 483. That's high. Anything above 460 is a warning sign for doctors. It was the first time Sam had "flunked" the test after 13 straight EKGs. The order came for Sam to stop running and see a cardiologist.
"I was planning to go to New York City for a race that was a Millrose qualifier," she said. "It was my dream to compete in that race. First I was down with the flu, and then I couldn't run either. I was just trying to stay hopeful."
A week later, Sam went back to her regular cardiologist for another EKG, and was told to take a couple of days off before resuming practice. The family left the doctor's office ... and 10 minutes later received a call saying the QT score was still a little high.
"The doctor said, 'I've always been able to tell you there were no concerns with her safety. I can no longer say that. We need to do something different,' " Dale said.
LQTS was once something of a "death sentence" for athletic careers, but it can be treated now. Still, Sam's running future looked uncertain at that moment.
"She was not fun to be around," Dale said about his daughter's attitude at that point. "We gave her as much space as she needed, but even the little things became big things to her. Seeing that play out as a father and a coach, the guy who catches her, it was heartbreaking at my end."
"I was a runner, and then I was just a person," Sam said. "I wanted to get back to my running self."
Doctors implanted a loop recorder, a device used to store long-term data for patients who have problems with fainting, in Sam's chest. Then they told her she still couldn't run.
"I was upset because they wouldn't let me run to see if there was anything abnormal going on," Sam said. "That's when you look around for a second opinion."
They found one at the Cleveland Clinic in early March, getting an appointment in almost record time. The Petermans navigated through the insurance maze in the process, as the company realized that there was no real specialist in Western New York for Sam's condition, especially for young adults.
Sam passed a stress test and the EKG this time, and got the news she had been waiting for.
"At that point, I was on beta blockers," which cause the heart to beat slower and with less force, "and we upped the dosage," Sam said. "They told me to take extra precautions — always run with somebody, have an AED (automated external defibrillator) available just in case something happened. I was able to get back to running."
Running, yes — but competing, no. Sam took the entire spring track season off. The usual rule for runners is that for every week you are idle, it takes two to get back to that level of fitness. The beta blockers wouldn't allow her to be at full strength anyway.
"I'm very close to the superintendent at Sweet Home (Anthony Day)," Dale said. "I sat down with him and Chris DeMarco, the athletic director, to talk about what was best for everyone involved. We all said there was no reason to push and put her at risk."
"For the outdoor season, I talked to my coach at Duke, and we decided not to compete," Sam added. "My competitive side really wanted to, but I wanted to be smart. I didn't want to be disappointed with the results. They wouldn't have been near what I had done in previous years. I decided to go back, train, and build up my base. I watched everyone else compete, and it was hard to sit on the sidelines."
Speaking of Duke, Sam had signed a letter of intent to attend the Atlantic Coast Conference last November. It was easy to wonder during those idle months if the school might back away from her because of the medical circumstances. That never happened.
"You always have that fear, because you hear about kids getting hurt and the support isn't there," Dale said. "But it was there from top to bottom. In every conversation it was 'Sam, get yourself healthy first. We'll worry about the rest later.' I couldn't have asked for a better understanding."
"I've been in touch with the athletic trainer, and she knows everything that's going on. They have everything. All the stuff from the Cleveland Clinic has gone to them at Duke. As she goes through college, she'll make two visits to Cleveland Clinic per year just to check on things."
Now it's summer, and Sam is only a few weeks away from heading to Duke. Lombardo believes she'll pack the same level of determination and grit for college that she showed in high school.
"She's part bulldog — that was part of her secret all along," he said. "She'd sacrifice more than others would, in a workout or in a race."
Sam still doesn't know what will happens when she tries to race again. But at least Peterman will have the chance to find out. At this point, a fresh start is a welcome prescription for what has ailed her.
"I've been able to ease off the beta blockers and get back to my old self," she said. "I can run by myself. Everything is sorted out. Everything is normal. It was one big bump in the road. I got back into workouts, and it was great. I was itching to do that. It's been a long wait, but I'm happy to be myself again."
"These past few years haven't been a smooth road. It's been pretty bumpy. But I wouldn't change anything. It shows who I am, and that anything can be worse. I'm very fortunate that I can do the things I love. That's what I've learned."