Olympian's Heart Stops During Shoulder Surgery, Leaving Him in Coma and Life Support


Even the most routine surgeries are dangerous procedures with multiple vulnerabilities for life-threatening complications. Yet whenever surgery is the “best” option for a patient, their medical team focuses on how unlikely complications are.

I suppose this is because to be completely transparent could scare patients away from procedures that would better their lives. I know that if I’d read about this Olympian before my shoulder surgery last month, I would have been even more anxious.

While the truth may be a long list of possible catastrophes, the likelihood of any of them happening are so small that doctors present the plan as though there is no risk at all. For one athlete, what was supposed to be “routine shoulder surgery” nearly ended his career — and his life.

AJ Muss has a natural talent for snowboarding and started young. His signature event, the parallel giant slalom, is a high-speed race down the mountain where the fast time is awarded top prize.

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In April 2014, however, AJ spent two weeks in a medically induced coma after a complication from shoulder surgery stopped his heart. An airway obstruction called a postoperative pulmonary edema threatened his life.

He’d stopped breathing and doctors believe that it was the supreme athletic conditioning that stored excess oxygen in his muscles that saved him. He was scheduled to be airlifted to a specialist facility, but a storm grounded all air travel.

They loaded him into an ambulance only to find a tunnel closure along their route. The tunnel was cleared to allow the ambulance’s passage and AJ reached the specializing facility.

By the time his mother, Arlette Muss, made it through traffic, she was floored to see her son. He was unconscious and covered in sterile surgical drapes — she thought it looked like a body bag.

Despite his mother’s fears, AJ woke up. He declined follow-up surgery on his heart that would have ended his snowboarding career.

In addition to physical rehab, AJ had to relearn how to read and write and suffered memory loss. Remarkably, AJ has made a full recovery and deals with the memory loss in jest, joking, “If I have a bad race, I’ll forget about it.”

But a lack-luster career that ended quietly in defeat wasn’t in store for AJ. He made the 2015-2016 U.S. Snowboarding team for the World Cup, and has just secured his ticket to the Olympic Games in South Korea beginning Feb. 8!

“I’m not going to the Olympics just to be at the Olympics, I’m going there to win a medal,” says the determined contender. Ranked 16th in the world, AJ will join the U.S. Olympic team for the Parade of Nations during the Opening Ceremony, but then has to stay focused until his qualifying round on Feb. 21, hopefully followed by the finals round on Feb. 23.

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AJ and his elated mother know how inspiring AJ’s story is. “The main thing A.J. wants kids to know is that they can do it,” Arlette said.

“Go out there and believe in yourself. It definitely hasn’t been easy, but each time there has been adversity, it actually made him that much stronger.”

I’ve loved the Olympics since I was a little girl, especially the winter games. I’ve already put some highly contentious races and competitions into my planner; I’ll be adding AJ Muss to my list of athletes to watch.

Good luck, AJ. No matter what happens in South Korea, your story is already an inspiration to children, athletes, and anyone recovering from complications stemming from a medical procedure.

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