‘My heart stopped 12 or 13 times every night’
Kate McCarthy was fitted with a pacemaker when she was just 10 because her heart was stopping more than a dozen times a night as she slept.
The "tiny" Queensland girl had also been convulsing and passing out - once seven times in a day - leading doctors to think she might have epilepsy.
Initially medical experts wanted to delay intervention, hoping she would grow out of the condition.
But after an overnight monitor revealed the alarming state of the primary school student's heart, they ordered follow-up tests and she was diagnosed with a blockage.
"I'd pass out, but it would look like a seizure because I'd convulse a little bit," McCarthy told the Herald Sun this week.
"The first time I had a halter monitor on, they worked out that my heart stopped 12 or 13 times every night. But because I wasn't conscious, it didn't really affect me.
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"It was just lucky in a sense that I was that young when it was happening, because I had no idea what was going on.
"I hadn't had any issues with it and one day I had six or seven 'seizures' in a day and the next day they'd put the pacemaker in. It all happened really quickly when it didn't go too well."
McCarthy initially took up touch rugby, cricket and athletics to avoid heavy contact sport, but AFL grabbed her interest.
"I went to a training session and I was awful, but I had the best time," McCarthy recalled.
"I was horrible - so bad at kicking. I couldn't kick to save myself.
"They were like, 'you're really fast, you'd be alright if you just worked on your kicking', but I told them I couldn't play but I'd keep coming to training."
The team was short that weekend. You know the rest.
"I didn't tell my mum that I was going to play because I didn't want her to find out and she'd kill me for playing when I hadn't gotten clearance from my cardiologist," McCarthy said.
"They'd said, 'just stand at full-forward, please!'. I stood in at full forward for about a minute and then just ran after the ball.
"I had the greatest game - I had so much fun. I would have been crap, but I just loved it. It was that new challenge."
McCarthy, who stands 164cm, approached her cardiologist and he cleared her to play, saying the only time he'd seen a pacemaker damaged badly enough was as a result of a cardiologist.
"Mum was concerned about the heart but was also one of those classic mums who didn't think their daughter should be playing a sport where there's rough and tumble," McCarthy said.
"They get over that really quickly when they see how much you're enjoying it and what it means."
McCarthy played 23 games with Brisbane, earning All-Australian selection in 2017, before she was tempted by the opportunity to play under women's football great Peta Searle at new club St Kilda.
She moved to Melbourne by car.
"I was really lucky that Dad came with me because I'm pretty sure he did 90 per cent of the driving," she said.
"It was definitely a chore, but Nacho (her mini dachshund) slept for the entire trip. He wouldn't have even known that we weren't in Queensland anymore.
"I also made the mistake of coming down in the middle of winter, which wasn't the best start to life in Melbourne, but apparently - as this week has shown - summer is not that different to winter here."
McCarthy isn't affected by her pacemaker, and has spoken with fellow heart patient and Saint Dylan Roberton who plans to return to AFL level in a pre-season match next week.
"I had a good chat to Dylan not that long ago. It's crazy that we both ended up at the same club," she said.
"He has a defibrillator so his is a bit more complicated. I'm pretty grateful that I don't have that, but he's done so well to get back.
"I obviously never had any issues on the football field, which I think mentally would be a little bit to overcome.
"But I'm really crap at a 2km time trial, so I try to pretend that maybe it's my heart that might affect that so I clutch at that being the case, but I don't think scientifically there's any proof."
The Saints face Melbourne at Moorabbin on Friday night and while yet to record a win, McCarthy is optimistic.
"Peta is just a genius and I feel like we haven't even tapped into a quarter of what she has to offer us, because we're just all coming together this season," she said.
"Under Pete, if we can go out and execute the things she wants us to do, we're going to win a lot of games."