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By Dan Gordon '85, Photos by Tamar Levine

Published Jan 15, 2015 8:00 AM

These men faced the risk of losing the activities they love most ... until UCLA surgeons came to the rescue.


The Giant Killer

Myles Honda took some of his first steps on a judo mat while watching his older brother practice. By the time he was 4, he’d spent countless hours around the martial art and was ready to take it up himself. “Myles was a natural,” says his father, Alan, a black belt who has coached both of his sons in what he calls “a family sport.”

At 12, Honda was ranked No. 1 in the nation in his age and weight group and had made the U.S. team, competing in Panama City, Panama, at the Pan-American Infantile Championships. He continued to perform at a high level into his teens, traveling to all parts of the country to participate in national tournaments. Along the way, an opposing coach gave him the nickname “Giant Killer” for his ability to bring down much taller opponents.

But in the summer of 2012, the Torrance, Calif., teen began to feel fatigue and weakness in his left arm during practices. Several months later, a heart murmur once considered benign was sounding louder. His parents took him to UCLA pediatric cardiologist Dr. Ruey-Kang Chang M.P.H. ’93, who saw that Honda likely had a circulation problem and referred him to the UCLA Aortic Center.

There, a team of experts concluded that Honda’s symptoms were caused by decreased blood flow to his left arm and side. He had been born with an aortic coarctation — a narrowing of part of the major artery leading out of the heart, which can affect the flow of blood to the body. CT scans showed that the main artery in his left arm wasn’t properly connected to the aorta.

“Myles, with the athletic demands on his body, was exceeding the ability of his blood supply to sustain muscle activity,” says Dr. William Quinones-Baldrich, professor of vascular surgery and director of the UCLA Aortic Center.

So in August 2013, Quinones-Baldrich and his team took an unusual step — joining Honda’s unconnected arm artery to his left carotid artery to improve his circulation. Since the carotid artery connects directly to the aorta, the procedure effectively restored blood flow to the newly connected arm artery. The strategy worked: For the first time, Honda registered a normal blood pressure in his left arm.

Today, he struggles to find the words to describe the feeling that washes over him when he competes. “You’re releasing all this tension,” he says, “just showing off what you’ve got after months of hard work.”

When he remained on the sidelines for the better part of a year while doctors evaluated his condition, Honda’s spirits dropped as his ranking plummeted. “It got boring,” he says. “I was restless all the time.” To his father and coach, the most important thing wasn’t getting his son back into competition. “Tournaments were secondary to his health,” Alan Honda says. “We were worried that he would have a stroke or a heart attack. If he didn’t have surgery, there was the possibility he could have an aneurysm in his 20s.”

In the months following the successful surgery, Honda took it slow. His return to competition in early 2014 didn’t go well. But by summer he had regained his form, and his father could see the return of his son’s enthusiasm and focus. Honda competed in nationals in Hawaii on the July 4th weekend, winning eight of nine matches to place second. He began training for his black belt.

The pinnacle would be the World Junior Championships: At 16, Myles is barely old enough to qualify and would be going against competitors as old as 21. But now that he’s symptom-free, no order seems too tall for the Giant Killer.