LSU women's basketball coach Kim Mulkey said a little numbness on the tip of her finger combined with curiosity resulted in her having a potentially life-saving heart procedure this summer.
Mulkey and the defending champions officially began practice in front of fans Monday at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center. Tuesday, the Tigers are scheduled to have CPR training. Mulkey always thought it was an important skill for her players to learn, even before her procedure.
In late June, Mulkey had two stents put into a coronary artery that had 95-99% blockage. Mulkey had not experienced symptoms and had no idea she had any heart issues. She initially had gone to see a doctor about only a small, nagging issue, but then a chain reaction of procedures led to the discovery of the blocked artery.
"I never even felt bad," Mulkey said. "I'm still kind of in shock that we accidentally found this. So my message in sharing this is, if you're over 50, go get a stress test.
"I've had some of my former teammates tell me, 'We're going to do it.' That's why I share these things. I'm an open book if it's something that can help people. It's just a great lesson for all of us who think that it won't happen to us."
Things are in high gear now for Mulkey and the Tigers. They return standouts such as All-American and Final Four most outstanding player Angel Reese and SEC freshman of the year Flau'Jae Johnson. Plus, LSU adds top transfers Aneesah Morrow and Hailey Van Lith, along with a highly regarded freshman class. The Tigers start the season Nov. 6 against Colorado in Las Vegas.
Earlier this month the LSU board of supervisors approved a 10-year, $36 million contract extension for Mulkey, the richest deal ever for a women's basketball coach.
But back in May, a month after guiding LSU to the NCAA title, she was sitting in her home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. It was a quiet time after the season, and Mulkey was, as she put it, "a little bored." The tip of the middle finger of her left hand had been tingling for months: not enough to really bother her, but enough for her to notice. She decided to get it checked out, and the diagnosis was carpal tunnel syndrome, which is what she expected.
However, on the same visit, Mulkey asked if they could also do a scan of her neck to make sure things looked good in the wake of a disc-replacement surgery she had in 2018 while still coaching at Baylor. She was told that checked out fine. But a few days later, a radiologist called to say upon further examining her X-rays, it appeared there was plaque in her carotid arteries. Then she went to see a cardiologist.
"He said, let's put you on the treadmill and do a stress test," Mulkey said. "Then he said, 'I don't like the way this isn't pumping faster; it looks like there's a little blockage going on. We've got to do a cath.'"
The official description of the procedure is a left heart catheterization with coronary arteriograms, followed by an intervascular ultrasound-assisted tandem stent placement to the left anterior descending artery. The "LAD" is the largest coronary artery.
Mulkey, who turned 61 on May 17, already had some upcoming trips planned, including to the White House to be recognized with her team on May 26. So the heart procedure was then scheduled for late June. She was given nitroglycerin pills if she encountered chest pains before that.
"You're awake for the procedure," she said. "Then they told me, 'You were 95-99% blocked in one artery.' And I said, 'Doc, why didn't I feel bad in any way?' He said, 'You're what's called an asymptomatic patient. You're the ones that can die suddenly and drive cardiologists crazy.' I asked if I was likely to have had a heart attack without the procedure, and he said, 'Yes, eventually.' I said, 'Will I feel any different now?' and he said, 'No, because you didn't have symptoms.' And I feel fine, just like I did before. But it's really encouraged me to tell people that if you can, get your heart checked.'"
Mulkey said the issue with her carotid arteries is being addressed with medication: a cholesterol pill, a beta blocker and a blood thinner.
While at Baylor, Mulkey missed a first-round NCAA tournament game in 2009 after surgery to remove kidney stones. During the 2012 NCAA tournament, which the Bears won to complete a 40-0 season, she had Bell's palsy, a form of facial paralysis caused by a nerve dysfunction. She also dealt with a retinal issue this past season that caused fuzziness in her vision. With all of those conditions, she had obvious symptoms.
"As an athlete, your body gives you signals with injuries. And even with non-athletic things like kidney stones, you definitely feel it," Mulkey said. "The issue with my heart, it was really just luck that we found it. So I will keep telling people, 'Get yourself checked out. You have nothing to lose, and it could save your life.'"