The scar runs about 6 or 7 inches, from the bottom of his chest toward his neck, serving as a constant reminder of what Derek Owens has endured.
“It could be a good thing,” said Owens, a freshman point guard for the Clark College men’s basketball team. “I feel I’ve been through something most people don’t go through. It has been challenging both mentally and physically.”
Owens, 19, was born with a bicuspid aortic valve, meaning that one of the valves in his heart had two leaflets instead of the typical three.
It wasn’t a big deal. He played sports as a youngster in Tempe, Ariz., living the active life of a growing boy.
“They said this is a condition that nobody ever grows out of. It never gets better,” his mom, Laura Owens, said. “In Derek’s case, it did get better; it got significantly better. That’s the power of prayer.”
“We didn’t tell Derek for years that he had a heart condition. We didn’t want him to self-impose limitations.”
Derek said: “I had a (heart) checkup every two years. I thought it was something every kid had to do.”
But Owens eventually was told of his condition, understanding that it someday would require surgery — likely as a young adult. Someday arrived early, as he developed an aneurysm on his aorta in his mid-teens.
That complicated matters.
Laura and her husband, Tim, spoke with specialists in Cleveland and in Houston and at Stanford University and at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. They learned that teenagers aren’t supposed to get aneurysms, and that surgery would arrive sooner than expected.
“It’s kind of one of those fine lines — there’s no right or wrong,” she said. “The survival rate of a ruptured aneurysm is about 5 percent.
“It’s a highly, highly risky surgery, to cut out the aneurysm and also replace the valve. When Derek came out of surgery they said the walls of his aorta were so thin they weren’t sure he would make it through surgery.”
Derek said: “They said if I didn’t have surgery when I did, I would have been dead by December. I had surgery in October, so that was kind of scary to hear.”
In addition to cutting out the aneurysm and repairing the aorta, doctors at Cedars-Sinai provided Owens with a bovine valve — made from tissue taken from a cow.
The recovery process was slow. At least as measured by a 16-year-old’s calendar.
“I thought, ‘I’m going to be done with it and I’ll be back to normal,’ ” Derek said. “But I couldn’t sleep for about a month-and-a-half. My left arm, I couldn’t do anything with it. It was just kind of stuck to my body.”
In time, Owens returned to basketball. He played his junior year at McClintock High School in Tempe. He helped the Chargers to a state title as a senior. He matriculated to Clark, where he leads the Penguins in minutes played and assists as they head to next week’s NWAACC playoffs.
“He’s thoughtful, respectful, great to be around,” Clark coach Mike Arnold said. “He’s quiet, but when you’ve been around him, he has a wicked sense of humor.
“He’s intuitive. He sees a lot of things a lot of young people don’t. I don’t think that has anything to do with his heart, that’s just who he is.”
Or, as his mom put it: “The kid with a heart problem has a lot of heart.”